The French federation is guilty of dereliction of duty for the manner with which they have allowed their national team become an object of ridicule, says Donal Lenihan
Two weeks in, and we have a much clearer picture of where the 2019 Six Nations championship is heading. England have been the standout team to date but with a demanding trip to Cardiff to face a Welsh side that in Warren Gatland’s words have “forgotten how to lose”, that could change quickly.
Wales are on an 11-game winning streak — their best since 1910 — but I’m still not convinced by them. Beat England on Saturday week, and that will be a different matter. It would also do Ireland’s championship prospects no harm and provide a huge incentive heading into the most challenging period of the entire tournament for Joe Schmidt when facing France and Wales over a six-day period.
After a fabulous opening round of action, last weekend’s fare felt a little flat. Scotland have once again flattered to deceive while Ireland were still short of their best yet won with a bit to spare. Even allowing for the high winds around Edinburgh, the quality of Saturday’s game was pretty poor.
Gatland made 10 changes from the side that beat France first up for their game against Italy in Rome.
Last season, when he again fielded a side labelled as “second string” in the Welsh media, all involved in Italian rugby were up in arms. Former Azzurri scrum-half Paul Griffin reflected the mood of many former Italian internationals, claiming Gatland’s selection was a disgrace and disrespectful to Italian rugby. Wales still won 38-14.
When he repeated the dose last weekend, there wasn’t a peep from the Italians. Without a win in the tournament in their last 19 games, they are not in any position to question or criticise. At least they still look a pretty united and spirited bunch and have stuck together in extremely trying circumstances.
If Saturday’s contests in Edinburgh and Rome fell short of expectations, we thought at least had the tie of the round, the clash of age-old rivals England and France at Twickenham, to look forward to on Sunday. It only took 65 seconds for the outcome of that game to crystallise when Jonny May delivered his now customary early try, 30 seconds faster than he managed in Dublin last time out.
While Ireland recovered from that early blow to regain the lead before eventually coming up short against a rejuvenated England, the French were dead and buried there and then, as England recorded their biggest win over France in 108 years.
After a stunning opening half of top drawer, quality attacking rugby against Wales that immediately triggered images in my brain frozen in time of Serge Blanco, Denis Charvet, Philippe Sella, and Patrice Lagisquet, running riot against Ireland in their pomp around the Parc de Princes, France have collapsed into a shambolic, disorganised rabble.
The French rugby federation (FFR) is guilty of a gross dereliction of duty here in the manner with which they have allowed their national team become an object of ridicule. When Guy Noves become the first ever French coach to be sacked after an equally calamitous period in charge is December 2017, all the FFR did was shift the deck chairs on the Titanic by appointing Jacques Brunel.
Brunel compounded the problem further by appointing a very inexperienced coaching group.
Former French hooker Sebastien Bruno had little coaching experience while the multi-capped former Clermont Auvergne lineout ace Julien Bonnaire hadn’t coached any side prior to his elevation.
Sunday’s defeat was their 10th from 13 tests played since Jacques Brunel’s appointment as national team boss.
The disgrace is that the players are there for France to do so much better. There is a cohort of player that has come through the French underage system, many from the side that won the Junior World Cup last June, the likes of Antoine Dupont, Romain Ntamack, and Demba Bamba that offer hope for the future.
To be fair, Brunel has recognised this and promoted all of them recently but the team is so disorganised, so lacking in leadership and confidence and so brittle defensively, that these kids could be destroyed by the experience.
While the excellent Louis Picamoles and under-pressure captain Guilhem Guirado tried manfully to stem the tide against England, they were fighting a losing battle from the off. France’s inability to cover the backfield was lamentable.
There was so much space available for the razor-sharp Owen Farrell, Ben Youngs, and Henry Stade to pick off with the boot, it was like shooting fish in a barrel.
Another quality young player in Damian Penaud was made look foolish through no fault of his own. A top-class centre by trade, he was isolated out on the right wing and looked lost.
On the one opportunity he was offered in attack, he delivered a spectacular try.
Compare Penaud’s experience to that of Jacob Stockdale as an international rookie last season when the structure and organisation around him enabled the Ulster man to showcase his skillset and deliver a Six Nations try-scoring record.
It didn’t help Penaud that the experienced Yoann Huget was all at sea at full back, having been switched from the wing against Wales, completing a trio all out of their natural surroundings as on the left wing was Racing 92 centre Gael Fickou.
Covering the backfield is becoming increasingly onerous as Robbie Henshaw discovered, especially against a side like England with so many kicking options. France had an experienced and quality full-back in Maxime Medard, who played well against Wales, but was dropped for the trip to Twickenham.
The pattern of chopping and changing the side clearly isn’t working and is only serving to ruin the confidence of the players. How long before this latest batch of really talented youngsters are riddled with insecurity and self-doubt?
The shambolic nature of their second-half collapse against Wales was compounded when it transpired that Sebastien Vahaamahina had taken over the captaincy from Guirado but didn’t even know it and had to be told by referee Wayne Barnes.
To exacerbate that sense of managerial disorganisation, Racing’s Camille Chat was called up as a replacement when French reserve hooker Julien Marchand injured his knee against Wales, only to be told that he was on holidays and wouldn’t be available until last Thursday.
As a former Champions Cup-winning coach with Toulon, French Federation president Bernard Laporte has to take responsibility. We all know he is a shrewd operator and the most successful French national coach of the professional era.
The manner with which he orchestrated and outsmarted the IRFU in their bid to land the 2023 World Cup for France, shows the power he has within the corridors of the FFR. It’s about time he started wielding that for the good of the national team.
I was wondering what Wales were doing, spending all of last week in camp in Nice between their opening two games until it was pointed out to me that it was a thank you to the WRU for supporting the French World Cup bid.
I wonder how long it will be before the Scottish squad conduct a similar camp?
At both Irish games over the last two weekends, I met numerous French supporters, proudly decked in blue, white, and red, taking in the atmosphere. They will tell you that they are so fed up of the way France have played over the last few years, that they prefer traveling to other Six Nations venues and just enjoy the craic. They can’t bear to watch their national side in action.
French rugby is in serious trouble but they have the talent to turn things around quickly. With proper backing and direction from the FFR and an experienced international coaching ticket, they could be a strong force again. The Six Nations is severely diminished by not having the French at their brilliant best.