The start of the 2016 Six Nations in February stands as something akin to “year zero” for French rugby.
After all, Saturday evening’s humiliating 62-13 defeat against New Zealand in the Rugby World Cup 2015 signalled more than the end of a deeply underwhelming World Cup campaign for Les Bleus. The result also brought the managerial tenure of Philippe Saint-Andre to a depressingly fitting conclusion.
Saint-Andre’s spell in charge of France was characterized by decline.
In four years under the tutelage of the former Sale Sharks and Toulon boss, France won eight out of twenty Six Nations matches, finished in the bottom-half of the table in every season, and received their first wooden spoon in over a decade in 2013.
This deterioration in results was made more worrying by the manner in which the team’s style of play regressed in kind.
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For a man regarded by many to have embodied France’s tradition of expansive, running rugby as a player to so self-consciously sacrifice guile and invention at the altar power as a coach was galling to observe.
Indeed, this was a point which the All Blacks coach Steve Hansen made in advance of the quarter-final, stating as follows.
“France have always had great athletes. Their game was built around flair in the backs and real physicality up front. I’m not sure it’s the same flair they have now. The Top 14 has become quite a dour competition with a lot of physicality and I know they are trying to recapture the flair which is within them.”
Saint-Andre’s consistent selection of the 125 kg battering-ram Mathieu Bastareaud ahead of the seamlessly elusive Gael Fickou at center, for instance, symbolized the grimly pragmatic stylistic transformation he sought to bring about. His preferring the 100 kg naturalized South African, Scott Spedding, in place of the fleet-footed Brice Dulin at fullback and Rory Kockott (another naturalized Springbok) ahead of Morgan Parra at scrum-half during the Six Nations was a symptom of the same ill-conceived strategic vision.
Saint-Andre’s tenure as head coach has thus resulted in a corrosion of many of the core stylistic values traditionally held to define French rugby. As a consequence, his successor, Guy Noves, inherits a side undergoing a profound identity crisis.
James Riach stated in the Guardian on Sunday that Nadir, in which French rugby finds itself following its Rugby World Cup exit, is severe enough so that the only trajectory in which Noves can take the team is up. To hold such a viewpoint, however, is to underestimate the scale of the challenge facing the legendary Toulouse boss.
Noves’ job is not as simple as culling the side of the underperforming starters who underpinned the Saint-Andre era while integrating younger faces and encouraging a more attacking style.
The 61-year-old takes charge of France at a time when the Top 14 has gained primacy over the national side to the extent that the leading clubs are no longer run in the interests of the French Rugby Federation (FFR).
The nouveau riche elite who dominate the Top 14, men like Jacky Lorenzetti at Racing Metro, Mourad Boudjellal at Toulon, and Eric De Cromieres at Clermont Auvergne, have no interest in seeing a strong French team in the Rugby World Cup. Instead of being encouraged into developing the next Serge Blanco or Michalak by way of salary caps and player quotas, the leading French clubs are free to sign ready-made talent from overseas and watch their trophy cabinets and bank balances flourish.
For all of his failings as a tactician, this is an organizational difficulty that Saint-Andre has been warning of almost since he took the France job and Toulon’s winning three European Cups in a row while France declined at international level is a disconcerting testament to his foresightedness.
Noves’ biggest challenge, after the Rugby World Cup, will be managing the gap between France’s weak national side and strong club league. If the experience of the English national football team in the years since the foundation of the Premier League is anything to go by, it may well be an impossible task.
[Photo by Mark Runnacles /Getty Images Sport]