The French have always been a bit erratic especially on the rugby field, one moment Les Bleus are capable of absolute brilliance the next disaster. France are at their best when they are completely unpredictably but in recent years that mystery has sadly vanished. A team once known for creativity and flair has seemed to lost its way, French rugby at this moment looks lost, disorganised and uncertain of the future, which is down to two clear issues that will addressed in this piece.
The French Rugby Federation (FFR) has made some questionable coaching appointments in recent years with the appointment of Mark Lievremont sparking this trend. Hired in 2007 after France’s 4th place finish in the World Cup, Lievremont was handed the difficult task of replicating Bernard Laporte who had been in the job for 8 years. Mark Lievremont’s tenure can summed up in a couple of words – erratic, fractious, unpredictable, utterly insane, you get the general idea?
Lievremont’s 4 year reign did have its good moments with France beating the All Blacks in 2009 as well as winning the Six Nations title and Grand Slam in 2010. His side also reached the final of the 2011 World Cup which ended in a narrow defeat to New Zealand. However the bad moments stick out, Lievremont guided France to their ever loss to Italy and after the match he had plenty to say. “I’m at a bit of a dead-end. I feel like I’m responsible, but the players lack courage. There is a certain cowardice. When I talk to them nothing happens”
France lost to Tonga for the first in their history and Lievremont was predictable vocal after the embarrassing loss “I thought I had experienced everything in terms of shame. But this time around, it’s been an extremely violent feeling again. Each missed pass, each missed tackle, I took them all as a deep personal failure”
Mark Lievremont was never afraid to replace his squad and constantly tinkered with his team selection which ultimately lead to a complete breakdown between the players and their head coach.
After France had beaten Wales to reach the World Cup final, Lievremont didn’t want his players to go out and celebrate the victory. “I went to bed in a bad mood because I’d asked the players not to go out, and I found out a few had gone out” said Lievremont. He continued ” I told them what I thought of them – that they’re a bunch of undisciplined spoilt brats, sometimes selfish, always complaining, always whining. It’s been like this for four years”
Mark Lievremont’s French side was occasionally irresistible to watch but on too many occasions his team spluttered, Lievremont was never afraid to say what he thought and walked a very thin between brilliance and insanity. “When I read my words written in the press, I realised I might be better keeping my big fat mouth shut” said Lievremont after his spoilt brats rant, he continued “Obviously it was humour. I said it affectionately. The players are real pains, but they’re loveable” Lievremont left after the World Cup final, “I will not miss him” said Imanol Harinordoguy “I felt he was lost”
Phillipe Saint-Andre was hired as Lievremont’s successor and took over after the World Cup had ended. Saint-Andre introduced a physical and direct playing style to the French team which never really clicked during his troublesome reign. Saint-Andre’s team only managed to score 57 tries in 35 tests compared to the 94 scored by Lievremont’s side. His French team also failed to win any notable silverware and the highest finish France achieved in Six Nations was fourth. France only won eight out of 20 Six Nations matches with Saint-Andre in charge and his side finished bottom in 2013.
Player selection proved to be another issue that Saint-Andre never resolved, he called on 81 players with over half of them failing to win more than 5 caps. He has also relied far to heavily on players who had passed their prime, Dimitri Yachvili, William Servat, Nicholas Mas, Frederick Michalak were all in their 30s yet were still playing ahead of younger talent. Consistency was never achieved during Saint-Andre’s rule and his 44% win rate proves it.
Success at the 2015 World Cup was Saint-Andre’s only chance to restore his fading reputation however the tournament ended in a whimper. France qualified in 2nd place in Pool D behind Ireland and faced New Zealand in the quarter-finals at the Millenium Stadium. The All Blacks destroyed the French, running in 9 tries with the scoreline finishing 62-13 to New Zealand. Philippe Saint-Andre exited the international stage afterwards leaving behind a hapless French team.
Since then, Saint-Andre has expressed the frustrations he faced dealing with the FFR and the domestic league known as the Top 14. “When I was coach, there were no discussions between the federation and the league. Some clubs refused to allow us access as French coaches to our players. During the Six Nations we would win two games in a row and then the players go back to their clubs and get killed” said Saint-Andre.
“When you have the best players in the world in the Top 14 with sold-out stadiums and teams like Toulon with the galacticos it is marvellous. But afterwards you watch some starting teams with two or three French players in the starting 15 or you are struggling to find wingers because 70 per cent are from overseas it starts to be a big problem. We need our young players to play and develop their game” Saint Andre said in an interview with the Telegraph.
This problem has plagued French rugby for many years with big clubs such as Clermont, Toulon and Racing 92 relying heavily on foreign players to the detriment of the national team. Toulon have signed players like Jonny Wilkinson, Drew Mitchell and Matt Giteau. Racing 92 have signed Dan Carter, Jamie Roberts and Luke Charteris with Clermont fielding a team filled with overseas talent. 43% of Top 14 players are thought to foreign and this stifles French talent.
Since the departure of Philippe Saint-Andre no substantial improvements have been made. Guy Noves was named as his successor and the former Toulouse coach only lasted 21 games becoming the first ever French coach to be sacked. Noves managed only 7 victories in his tenure and was dismissed at the start of 2018. Jacques Brunel was brought in to oversee France into the 2019 World Cup.
Under Brunel, France have slipped to 8th in the IRB world rankings and have only won 2 out of their 8 test matches in 2018.
“I think we have hit rock bottom” said Saint-Andre, a sentiment echoed by many.
I would like to credit the Telegraph, CNN, Rugby World and BBC Sport will the quotes and statistics provided in this blog, the relevant articles have been linked below.
I would also like to credit the World Rugby YouTube with the videos provided in this blog.