Search continues for French rugby’s joie de vivre

What a difference 40 minutes makes — especially for the France Six Nations’ squad.

At the end of a dominant first-half in a rain-sodden Paris, Les Bleus were two tries and 16-0 to the good against Wales, despite Morgan Parra’s kicking radar going awry.

Their final three points came, with the clock ticking into the red, from a slick salt-in-the-wounds Camille Lopez drop goal directly after Gareth Anscombe’s line-clearing penalty had failed to find touch.

France’s Dany Priso after training in Marcoussis this week. Picture: Baptiste Fernandez

But, when referee Wayne Barnes signalled the end of the game, following a second-half cataclysmic Frenchness, they were left to wonder how they had lost a game which they had controlled. 

And FFR President Bernard Laporte has been forced to frantically defend national coach Jacques Brunel.

It is safe to say the post-mortem of Friday’s match has not been kind to Brunel, following a ninth defeat in 12 games since the start of last year’s Six Nations, and seven losses in the last eight outings. 

But Laporte is not about to push the nuclear button.

“We changed coach just over a year ago because we felt things were not going very well,” Laporte said in a radio interview on Sunday evening when the suggestion was put to him.

We can’t say they (results) have improved today. But it would be difficult and certainly dangerous to make new changes.

The questions that have followed the 24-19 loss to Wales could not have come at a worse time for Monsieur Le President. 

He ignored the same concerns about the wisdom of making changes just over a year ago when he sacked Guy Noves.

An employment tribunal in Toulouse is set to rule on February 14 whether the former coach is entitled to compensation. 

Noves, whose record as France coach was seven wins in 21 matches over two years, is claiming €2.9m in back pay on his reported €800,000-a-year contract, plus 1,800 hours overtime and damages.

First, however, is the small matter of England at Twickenham on Sunday. 

France have not beaten the English on home soil since February 2005, when Laporte was head coach and Dimitri Yachvili kicked all of France’s points in an 18-17 win. 

That victory, almost 14 years to the day ago, came a week after England, under Andy Robinson, had lost 11-9 in Cardiff.

This match comes a week after Eddie Jones’s side beat Ireland in Dublin.

There is no wonder, then, that Laporte was justifiably lacking in confidence about French chances in the tournament. 

“When one loses the first match at home, it’s difficult to speak about victory even if it is … still possible,” he told radio station Europe 1.

For Olivier Magne, who played 89 times in the back row for France between 1997 and 2007 there is an obvious response.

“We don’t have the players capable of sustaining 80 minutes of maximum intensity,” he said in an interview with Midi Olympique. “Then there’s the mental aspect. At the first setback, these players collapse psychologically.”

His answer? The same one Laporte urged Noves to try ahead in early 2017. Cut out the defeated wood and — to mix metaphors — give youth its head.

“This generation of players has been associated with defeat for too long,” Magne added.

The former flanker, who also coached France under-20s between 2014 and 2016, believes Brunel's legacy should be one in which he blooded the next batch of France internationals, notably those in the U20 squad that wowed the World Championship last summer.

From that title-winning squad Demba Bamba and Romain Ntamack have already made their senior debuts. 

Magne wants the likes of Toulon’s Louis Carbonel and Stade Francais’ Arthur Coville - even Racing 92’s Jordan Joseph - to make their way through the ranks much more quickly.

“Give priority to the youngsters who have proved their worth,” he said. “Where’s the risk? So we lose matches. It would not be any worse.”

Another respected coach who has been working in France recently also believes there is hope for the future.

Writing in The Guardian, Olympic gold medal-winning Fiji 7s coach Ben Ryan said that change is very much in the air in France. 

Jacques Brunel

He added that if Brunel’s selection this morning “tilt[s] towards youth… the beginnings of the team of tomorrow could yet be forged this Sunday.”

Ryan may be over-egging the pudding a little, but the young crop of players coming through are exciting rugby watchers in France. Maybe even enough to dare to dream again.

He’s certainly more confident about France than Laporte, who admitted on Sunday: “We have a French team which no longer makes us dream, and it’s been the case for practically 10 years. 

"We must rediscover how to win because it’s the shop window of our sport.”

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