No golden dawn in sight for French rugby team
3/18/2013 11:10:06 AM
Normally a Six Nations wooden spoon two years ahead of the World Cup would not augur well for a country's chances but when it's France all bets are off.
The last time France landed the unwanted prize in 1999 -- when it was the Five Nations -- they went on to beat the favourites the All Blacks in the World Cup semi-finals before losing to Australia in the final.
However, after two poor Six Nations campaigns under coach Philippe Saint-Andre, questions are being asked as to whether the French federation made the right choice in selecting him to replace Marc Lievremont after France's 8-7 defeat by the All Blacks in the 2011 World Cup final.
Saint-Andre, who built up a respectable record as a club coach with Gloucester, Bourgoin, Sale and Toulon, insisted after the 13-13 draw with Ireland that a phrase he had used suggesting he would resign had been taken out of context and he was staying till the 2015 World Cup.
In his defence he said the crazy domestic schedule has handicapped his two Six Nations campaigns but that was the case, as he admitted, for predecessors Bernard Laporte and Lievremont.
Indeed Laporte delivered two Grand Slams in 2004 and 2006 and Lievremont one in 2010 and Saint-Andre's side looks a long way off being able to challenge for another.
However, Saint-Andre, whose main rival for the post, former France captain and now Montpellier coach Fabien Galthie has some powerful enemies inside the federation, insists French rugby must grasp the nettle when its chiefs from the federation and the league meet at the end of June.
There they will discuss allowing international players more time with the national set-up in preparation for tournaments such as the Six Nations.
"We have given them the list of things they need to take up," he said.
"We have a president, an executive director, highly-motivated people. I hope that the people from the League are conscious that not only is the Top 14 very important but so is the national team.
"It is imperative that we are able to run a 100 metres like the other nations when sometimes I have the impression we are running the 110m hurdles."
Saint-Andre's other explanation for the poor campaign -- that his team are largely young -- seems reasonable at first inspection.
Young centre Wesley Fofana has been an unqualified success, but France's largely insipid opening performances against Italy and Wales coincided with him being exiled out on the wing, while others look promising such as New Caledonia-born lock Sebastien Vahaamahina.
"We have a team packed with youth, a very young second row, very young centres, and they will learn. We believe in the youth of French rugby," he said.
"We have been criticised, mostly by the usual suspects, but we believe in our project which is building a squad for the 2015 World Cup."
The problem for Saint-Andre is his revolution has started a year after that of England's under Stuart Lancaster.
The contrast between the two sides could have not been greater as on the final day.
England contested but were ultimately exposed by a clinical Wales side in denying them the Grand Slam while the French failed in their bid to avoid the wooden spoon despite beating Scotland in their finale.
For many, though, the biggest error of Saint-Andre is his undying faith in fly-half Frederic Michalak despite the mercurial player's consistently poor performances.
It culminated in him leaving the pitch near the end of the Scotland game with a shoulder injury although he was lucky to still be on the pitch having begun the half by punching Scotland fullback Stuart Hogg.
Saint-Andre claimed his choice of Michalak had been justified because he exited to a standing ovation but it was more due to sympathy for his plight than his performance.