IN A week when we all became more knowledgeable about French rugby in the wake of Jonny Sexton’s big move to Racing Metro, pressure continues to mount on national coach Philippe Saint-André to win the Six Nations with what is regarded as the strongest squad in the competition.
The 45-year-old is set to take France into his second Championship after filling the vacuum left by Marc Lievremont’s departure after the 2011 World Cup. Saint-André’s nickname here in France is Le Goret (The Piglet) from his days as a brilliant try-scoring winger for France. He has 69 test caps and captained his country on 34 occasions.
With Martin Johnson gone, he is the most decorated player now coaching a top tier nation. Despite easily having the best CV for the job given his vast coaching experience with Gloucester, Sale Sharks, Bourgoin and Toulon, he hasn’t been universally accepted by the French rugby public as the man to steer Les Bleus towards the next World Cup cycle.
That’s largely down to the perception that he has been anglicised by having spent 11 years playing and coaching in the UK. Saint-André is very pragmatic in his approach and insists his teams spend the first half of any week working on the set piece to ensure you win the ball. Then you must install a detailed defensive system to make sure you don’t concede points. Only at the end of the week you start to put a little attacking plan together.
My old team mate at Leinster, Felipe Contepomi, a free spirit when it comes to playing, didn’t have a very stable relationship with Saint-André at Toulon. This is because he disagreed with, and ignored, the coach’s instructions that when they got into the opposition 22, the first option was the drop goal. Neither man was willing to back down, and Felipe ended up being sent on loan to Stade Francais. Expect Saint-Andre’s France to grind teams down before throwing off the shackles.
When he was awarded the French job, Saint-André brought in two former playing colleagues as assistants, Patrice Lagisquet and Yannick Bru. Lagisquet was also a brilliant winger but the sides he coached at Biarritz played a very pragmatic brand of rugby. Yannick Bru, the former Toulouse hooker, may have played in a Guy Noves-coached outfit that entertained the crowd with a brilliant offloading game, but his expertise and focus is on the set piece and a strong mauling game.
Saint-André is more of a manager or director of rugby than a coach and while he gives nothing away to the media, his ability to communicate and build relationships with his players is widely lauded here. After the chaos and player unrest under Marc Lievremont, that is hugely important. There hasn’t been any whisper of discontent with this group, virtually unheard of in France rugby circles, which is usually full of leaks from agents and players alike.
LAST year’s Six Nations didn’t go to plan for Saint-André and after losing to Wales and England, and drawing with Ireland they finished a poor fourth. Saint-André dealt with this by saying it was his chance to find out about his players and he used the Argentina tour in June to put his stamp on the group.
He has addressed one of the big problems for France in recent times and selected Freddie Michalak at out-half as the man he will build his team around. Unflatteringly described as ‘Flaky Freddie’, Michalak has come back from a stint playing in Super Rugby with the Sharks in Natal a much better player and, though normally playing nine for Toulon where he partners Jonny Wilkinson, he led France to three wins from three in the November Series when his goal-kicking was superb.
Saint-André believes the problem French rugby over the years has been the frequency with which they drop the out-half as soon as results turn. He has vowed not to fall in that trap.
Saint-André has spent most of his time in the job trying to make the changes that will increase his chance of winning the World Cup next time round. While his Six Nations rivals were resting up last weekend on the back of a week’s training together in national camps, the French were playing Top 14 action on Friday night. The season in France is incredibly long and the final runs into early June with the season starting mid-August. There is no such thing as a 10-week pre-season in France; the players often play friendlies after two weeks training, limiting their strength and conditioning development.
The RFU in England compensate the Premiership clubs for producing internationals and the home unions largely fund the RaboDirect Pro12 teams, so they can tailor fixtures to suit the national team. No such luck in France where clubs hold the power.
Another problem for Saint-André is the amount of foreign players in France. For example, last season just two starting tight-heads props were French and of the 28 first choice wings, only eight were French qualified.
To solve this problem, next season was supposed to see the introduction of a limit of 14 foreign players per club, dropping to 11 the year after. At present, 50% of your squad can be foreign, 19 out of 38. This ruling was flagged three years ago to give clubs an opportunity to develop their academies and produce French players. However last month the LNR — the body running the Top 14 — elected a new president, Perpignan’s Paul Goze, and his first move was to row back. From next year every team will be allowed 16 foreigners with the promoted sides allowed one extra for the first two seasons. Provale, the professional players’ union in France, could do nothing.
Even with all this going on, France has a cracking chance of winning this Six Nations. In odd years they play three away games and start in Italy this weekend. They also go to Twickenham and Dublin so a Grand Slam is unlikely. On the back of winning their last four games, Saint-André is focusing minds on something seldom found in French rugby circles: consistency.
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