All going sour in the city of love

It may be cold enough here in Paris to leave eskimos pining for the frozen tundra of their homelands but the hot air currently being generated by French rugby folk more than compensates for the polar conditions.

Less than four months on from France’s most improbable run to the World Cup final, former national team coach Marc Lievremont has returned to the thorny subject of his relationship with the players, with the publication this week of his version of events.

The timing alone is not likely to endear him any further to those players, the majority of whom will be taking to the (frozen) field at Stade de France tonight intent on continuing their winning start to the 2012 Six Nations campaign under new coach Philippe Saint-Andre with a victory over Ireland. But if the reviews are to believed, there was little chance of Lievremont feeling the love from his former charges in the first place, and nor would he be seeking it.

And while the Test team prepares to take on Ireland a week after opening the Saint-Andre era with a win over Italy that barely saw them move out of third gear, there is the whiff of revolution in the air across Paris at Racing Metro.

Perhaps following in the footsteps of the national squad, which effectively mutinied at the World Cup and got themselves to the final in spite rather than because of Lievremont, the Racing players’ relationship with their coach, former France scrum-half Pierre Berbizier, has hit rock bottom.

Hairy caveman Sebastien Chabal, was the first to put his massive head up above the parapet — in this latest round of dissent, at least — when he had his contract with the Parisian club terminated by mutual consent after a falling out with Berbizier over “playing strategy” and failing to agree terms on a new deal with Racing’s moneybags president Jacky Lorenzetti.

The discontent appeared to have started back in November when Berbizier jettisoned his backs coach, the New Zealander Simon Mannix, and replaced him with Argentine Gonzalo Quesada. The players were not best pleased and went public on the matter with four backs staging a brief protest before the Parisian Top 14 derby with Stade Francais, unfurling a banner which read: “There’s only one Simon Mannix.” Racing lost 29-3 and then again the following week in Europe to London Irish, 34-14 at their Stade Yves du Manoir home.

The players’ whispers against their head coach grew louder, with sources quoted in French newspapers and a worn and regretful Berbizier responding philosophically against the anonymous voices.

“Rugby has taught me courage,” the former scrum-half said. “I wish that those who speak out, if they speak truly because it is easy to open the quotes of anonymity, must have the courage of their convictions and assume full responsibility!”

Lorenzetti did stand up, though, backing Berbizier, for now at least, and urging: “It is precisely in these moments that we must remain calm, humble and stay the course.”

Chabal has put an end to all that and on Thursday, a day after the hulking back row cleared the unused razors out of his locker at the club’s La Croix de Berny training ground, the remaining players went to the president to tell him of their distrust of the coach.

“I do not think they were coming to me for Pierre’s head,” a baffled Lorenzetti said. “I thought they needed to talk, perhaps to reassure themselves.”

Yesterday, the real estate agency mogul was playing down the schism at his club.

“I am serene,” he said. “There was a lot of hype in the press about what happened but there has never been a coup, unlike what I’ve read. We calmly explained to the players yesterday morning. They asked me, the head person.”

And while their paymaster appeared satisfied his playing staff had listened to his response, the real test will come when Berbizier delivers his next team talk. And with that set to happen this afternoon at Stade Michelin, the fortress of Clermont Auvergne, Lorenzetti may feel that another loss is enough to make him join the revolution too. There’s never a dull moment here.

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