French public demand panache

If the French president Francois Hollande has been sweating under the pressure of public scrutiny over the last couple of weeks, it is nothing to that felt by Phillipe Saint-Andre.

French public demand panache

After watching his side collect just two wins last year, against Scotland in the Six Nations and Tonga in November, he desperately needs a good tournament.

“There is a lot of pressure on France after last year, it is a lot tighter,” says former back row forward Olivier Magne alluding to the metaphoric noose around Saint-Andre’s neck.

“We are waiting to see what happens. If we can win the opening match with a bit of panache, then who knows. If not, it becomes more difficult.”

The problem for Saint-Andre is winning may not be enough to satisfy a public that puts great store on style.

“The French must free themselves,” insists Magne, a veteran of four Grand Slam victories who finished his playing career at London Irish.

“At the moment they are lacking confidence. They have to rediscover that if they are to win the championship. But that is not so easy because they also need to win. A win would give them some confidence and that can help them to rediscover their game.

“It is always an idea in France to create something special for the public. We have good players but they are too restricted at the moment. We are not producing those great tries with the fluid movement. We are waiting for that. The last few years we have been more direct, more pragmatic. We must allow the players to play a French game.”

Schooled as a coach in the less liberated acres of Gloucester and Sale, that may prove beyond Saint-Andre.

In the coach’s favour is that, unlike last year when they travelled in cocky mood to Rome for the opener only to come home tail ‘twixt legs, they begin this year’s campaign at the Stade de France in Paris.

The bad news is that it is against an England side which has returned to the hard-nosed no-frills rugby that has long been its trademark.

“It is going to be far from comfortable because England have a squad bursting with enthusiasm and confidence,” says Magne.

“It is an interesting combination as they are blending their youth and their experience which is mainly in the pack. They have a very solid tactical game. It could be very awkward.”

The November tests showed signs of promise for the French. Les Bleus produced a rousing performance against the All Blacks, losing a match by seven points that they had every right at least to draw. They were squarely beaten by South Africa but the signs were there of a mini-revival.

Since then, Saint-Andre has had to sit back and watch a number of key players hobble off to the sidelines. Thierry Dusautoir is out for the duration, injured on duty for Toulouse, which means the French have lost a back row Trojan as well as a totemic skipper.

Pascal Pape, who has one of the worst disciplinary records in the Top 14 this season, takes over as captain.

The equally abrasive Florian Fritz, who had finally come through to form a flourishing centre partnership with the more silky Wesley Fofana, is also in the nursing home.

Perhaps more significantly, Saint-Andre has lost his half-backs again. Instability at scrum-half and out-half has been one of the key problems for the French since they reached the 2011 World Cup final.

When Morgan Parra and Remi Tales played against New Zealand in November, it was the 10th half-back combination used in 19 Tests. It worked well but now both are injured and replaced for the England match by Jean-Marc Doussain and Jules Plisson. Their selection sent a genuine frisson of excitement through the French ranks.

“We are missing players, yes, but that gives a chance to some of the younger players like Doussain and Plisson,” says Magne.

“These are exciting young players and the only way we can push them along is by giving them opportunities at international level. Plisson can certainly cause some problems. He has progressed a great deal.”

The young fly-half, who has been preferred to the more experienced and more safety-conscious Francois Trinh-Duc, has been instrumental in Stade Francais’ rise to the top of the French championship.

“Our Top 14 is a problem because there are so many foreign players in the 9 and 10 roles,” says Magne.

“Young players have to get experience and make their mistakes. This is where Plisson has been impressive. Even with Morne Steyn arriving at Stade Francais after the November tests, he has still had a lot of game time and is holding his own.”

History suggests France will perform well this tournament. After all, it follows a Lions tour and that has traditionally signalled a French triumph — Grand Slams in 1998, 2002 and 2010 with a championship in 2006. They also have the benefit of hosting three matches with Italy and Ireland to follow the English.

But Magne is not convinced the elements are there at the moment for a French Slam.

“There really are no easy games in the tournament. Look at the Irish. I saw a team that played an extraordinary match against the All Blacks. They lost but they played with such panache!

“They will obviously have some regrets because they had never beaten the All Blacks but they are a very good side. They have been hiding themselves a little bit but if they play like that then everyone else is going to have to watch out.

“Wales are going to be strong once again and we have to travel to Cardiff. Edinburgh isn’t an easy match and, as we saw last year, Italy have become a lot harder to beat.”

He adds: “There are two main factors in Grand Slam sides. One is success going into the tournament. When you are winning you have more belief. And then you win more games. It becomes a force of habit.

“The second thing you need is enthusiasm for the game. You have to enjoy the game and the tournament and you have to enjoy being with your team-mates. Remember it is a game. Of course, that is always easier when you are winning matches.”

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