Six Nations: Wounded French bemoan their plight

AS YET there is no respite for France’s beleaguered first XV and they would have found few words of comfort in yesterday morning’s press.

AS YET there is no respite for France’s beleaguered first XV and they would have found few words of comfort in yesterday morning’s press.

"Pathetic" screamed the headline across France’s weekly rugby newspaper Midi Olympique.

"The euphoria of autumn is gone and winter is gloomy," the paper stated, words that will no doubt be ringing in coach Bernard Laporte’s ears and manager Jo Maso who have fled to the ski slopes of Val d’Isere to indulge in a serious amount of soul-searching and no doubt countless reruns of the video evidence that showed their team’s dreams of a 2001 Grand Slam turn into a nightmare at Lansdowne Road.

According to one French journalist, Lansdowne Road was akin to the famed Bermuda Triangle for the Tricolores, impossible to explain and mysterious. Somewhere out on that patch of green grass the best parts of French backline play went missing and the writer was moved to wonder just where the flair and finesse have disappeared to.

For others though, the spectre of two fine victories over New Zealand loom large in the reason for France’s prevailing poor form.

"These victories seem to have sown the seeds for the current problems and perverted the capacity for us to correctly analyse exactly where French rugby is at," wrote one critic.

"It isn’t the defeat in Ireland that is so shocking. The Irish have thoroughly deserved their victories over France in the last two years. Their rugby is in robust health which is good for them and good for European rugby. Their progress helps preserve the magic of the tournament.

"What is upsetting from the French point of view is the sorry quality of our game, its absence of freshness and the lack of clarity in either the intentions of the team or their play."

An absence of true talent is a subject that was discussed long into Saturday night in pubs and bars around Dublin and is a point that Laporte has been quick to seize on. Too many foreign players cluttering up key positions is something he views as doing a disservice to the game in France. But he is honest enough to admit he was amongst the first to bring in top-line overseas players during his years with Stade Francais. And now this style of open chequebook rugby is coming back to haunt him.

But not everyone is convinced that foreign players are the cause of the problem. "How can we glorify a team that could bring the All Blacks to their knees, raising the spirits of everyone and then just three months later vilify these same players and say that they are talentless?" writes the Midi Olympique.

"Without a doubt, Richard Dourthe is unrecognisable and Christophe Lamaison a mere shadow of the player he was a short time ago. But the poor form of two players and the wretched performance against Ireland does not explain the seeming procrastination amongst the entire team. Why has the team run both hot and cold this season?"

The writer is of the opinion that the enormous weight of expectation has created panic within the team.

"We’ve flattered them, fawned them, been silent in our criticisms and built them up to be the rugby kings of the world since that victory in Marseille last November. Inevitably they had to fall."

The tumble came sooner than anyone expected and of course the French rugby public want a quick fix. The next Six Nations match is against Italy on March 3 and there could well be a big clear out of the old guard.

Laporte has declared that new blood is needed and, after a good result in the A game, several players, particularly the backline trio of Jauzion, Bonetti and fullback Elhorga could expect to be called upon. All three impressed with their play and they could feature in a new-look backline which is likely to include halfback Fabien Galthie who has now served out his suspension and wing Christophe Dominici.

Another player under consideration is loose forward Milheres.

But Laporte must look to more than just a different group of players to solve his problems. A lack of confidence and poor morale are obvious consequences of the last two results, albeit that one was a victory.

He is known as a tough taskmaster and he has only two short weeks in which to mould together a team which is now under severe pressure to win well against the Italians and to also find the time to rebuild their shattered spirits.

The words ‘French’ and ‘flair’ will haunt him until he gets things right.

"If you want me to talk about French flair I can tell you that Christian Cullen has it and so does Brian O’Driscoll. French flair is about creative spirit. We lack these certain talents and we can’t hide from that truth."

Laporte says he spoke with Ireland coach Warren Gatland and was interested to learn that Irish players are playing between twenty and twenty-five matches a season, almost half the number of games French players will take part in. The French coach has been openly critical of his country’s long club season which sees many players either training or playing from mid-July through to the end of June.

There is plenty for the coach to ponder while he takes a few days break in the clear mountain air. Certainly, clarity of thought is a must if Laporte is to bring together a team that can win well and with style in Italy early next month.

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