Journalists at the recent media launch of the 2019 Guinness Six Nations probably experienced minor flashbacks when France coach Jacques Brunel told them: “I don’t have a miracle recipe.”
That much was clear when the squad for the opening match against Wales was confirmed this week.
There’s a sense, again, that France are winging it — that, nine months from the World Cup, there are more empty spaces in Brunel’s provisional squad list for Japan than filled ones.
Midi Olympique suggested as recently as mid-January that only eight players were guaranteed seats on the plane if fit.
Brunel’s words at that media launch were uncannily similar to those of predecessor Guy Noves, who said in November 2015, shortly before heading to FFR headquarters at Marcoussis for the first time: “I’m not arriving with a magic wand.”
Similarities do not end with vaguely mystic metaphors.
Noves faced a huge task to rebuild French confidence following a 2015 World Cup campaign that ended in a humiliating 62-13 quarter-final defeat against New Zealand.
Brunel took over shortly before the 2018 Six Nations and faced a huge task to rebuild French confidence after Noves’ departure following a very fortunate 23-23 draw against Japan at the end of a dismal run of results.
Their first-year records, too, are similar. Noves had four wins from 11 in 2016, marginally better — though these things are relative — than Brunel’s three from 11 in 2018.
But impatience was high in late 2017 when Noves was forced out. France didn’t perform as promised. In the 12 months since Brunel took over, they’re still not performing as promised. This time, there is little sense of immediate panic, for three main reasons — timing, personnel, and perception.
Timing can be covered quickly: It’s nine months to the World Cup in Japan. It’s facile to suggest Les Bleus have quietly written off the 2019 tournament but another staff change right now would do nothing for France’s ever-decreasing ambitions.
Brunel’s initial caretaker-in-all-but-name contract ends after Japan 2019. It was recently extended, bizarrely, to the summer of 2020. The Clermont contract of Franck Azema, a long-time favourite to take over the job and former assistant to Brunel at Perpignan, coincidently ends at the same time. But the latest whispers in France suggest Lyon’s young coach Pierre Mignoni is in pole position.
He is under contract until 2023, but club president Yann Roubert has recently said he would not stand in Mignoni’s way if France came calling.
Personnel needs a deeper dive. Despite appearances, the FFR is uncomfortable with hiring and firing. Noves, after winning just seven of his 21 games in charge, was the first-ever coach to be sacked. And even that is not entirely straightforward. Due to French employment laws, he technically remains on FFR books while a tribunal grinds its way to a ruling.
But even Philippe Saint-Andre, whose brute force and ignorant gameplan impressed nobody, was allowed to finish his tenure, with a 23-45 record.
And Marc Lievremont, whose greatest management trick was to provoke a dressing room mutiny at the 2011 World Cup, can at least say his last match in charge was the final of that tournament.
Noves’ sacking was remarkable — and in part came about because of a key change in the upper echelons of the FFR. Pierre Camou was president of the French union in 2015 when establishment man Noves — several years too late — took the national coach’s job.
By December the following year, Camou was out, replaced by Bernard Laporte after a landslide election victory. It was a seismic shift in the conservative world of French rugby.
His support for Noves was open to debate from the outset. Relations had been, at best, frosty since Laporte was France coach and Noves in charge at Toulouse. Shortly before the presidential election, and after Laporte had reportedly sounded out Bordeaux-Begles then-head coach Raphael Ibanez, Noves publicly voiced his support for Camou, the man who had finally sold him on the France job.
Laporte tried and failed to pour cold water on speculation, taking to social media to say, without much on-pitch evidence:
That confidence did not last. Despite further public displays of mutual appreciation, Laporte issued a performance-related ultimatum ahead of the 2017 June tour of South Africa. He issued another — this time with a minimum win rate — for the November series.
By the end of the year, having missed both targets, Noves was out, ejected after a root-and-branch review of the national set-up involving players, administrators, and Top 14 clubs — and Brunel, who had taken charge at Bordeaux following the clouded departure of Ibanez, was handed the France job.
Finally, there’s a perception double-whammy — Laporte’s and the wider public. Noves allowed nobody to question his authority in rugby matters.
That much was obvious when he was in charge at Toulouse. It was equally obvious at Marcoussis. That did not sit well with Laporte.
Nor did his apparent failure to face, let alone ease, deep-seated tensions between the national set-up and cash-rich Top 14 clubs. It was cited by Laporte — though disputed by Noves — as one of the main reasons he lost his job.
Brunel, on the other hand, was and remains Laporte’s man. He was part of Laporte’s staff with France. And he, unlike Noves, is amenable to coincidental visits and helpful advice and opinions from the boss.
In 2018, the new coach set out at once on a very public charm offensive. He regularly invites Top 14 coaches to Marcoussis for their input at squad training sessions.
He tours the country, visiting clubs and watching players go through their routines. He persuaded the likes of Clermont’s Azema, Castres’ Christophe Urios, and La Rochelle’s Xavier Garbajosa to take charge of France’s A side.
His tenure so far has been one of clear and present rapprochement. In the backroom, at least, it seems to be working. The hope is that will translate to the pitch.
When Brunel visited Clermont early last year, Azema said:
“That Jacques and his staff are now coming to meet us is rewarding. It shows the players that there is a real exchange, that there is no more double talk.
‘Double talk’ is a telling phrase. It has darkened French rugby’s doorway for years. Coaches, including Laporte, have railed against the perceived power of clubs in the French top flight.
And they were quick to point the finger of blame in the Top 14’s direction. But, until Brunel, nobody had really tried to do anything about it.
As Toulouse coach, Noves fought the national set-up over his players — it was what compromised long-term relations with Laporte. As national coach, he fought the club set-up over their players.
Ahead of his arrival at Marcoussis, he had gained an elite-player system, as part of a new deal between the FFR and the LNR, which runs the professional game in France. Similar to the England set-up, it gave him final say in squad members’ preparation and more time with his squad ahead of internationals.
The elite list is, effectively, dead under Brunel. He still releases a provisional squad list — but it is not anything definitive. He said at the start of his time in charge: “I’m not sure the list still exists. In any case, the selection of players for the French team will not be based on it.”
As is the worst of the fighting between club and country. There’s a long way to go, and France start well behind the other Six Nations sides, but they may, finally, be on a road to some form of detente.
And there’s a new honesty from Brunel. At the same press conference in which he revealed he did not have a magic recipe, he said:
“I am aware of our weaknesses, but I also believe in our strengths.
“We need to rethink our rugby in general. We need to do some work on the training of our young players and our way of playing. But we, the France team, are the showcase of our sport and we must set an example.”