French rugby has, historically, done mystifying very well — but things have moved to a whole new level in recent months.
Take the World Cup squad announcement. Head coach Jacques Brunel was supposed to name the 31 players who had made the plane to Japan on September 2, during the 8pm news slot on World Cup broadcaster TF1. Two days before the announcement, however, he was suddenly unable to do the show, so it was decided the big reveal would be made by anchorman Gilles Bouleau.
That’s not what happened, either. In the end, it was a part-live, part-pre-recorded segment involving FFR President Bernard Laporte tagged on to the end of the news, with Brunel on hand to answer pre-selected questions.
It was the latest in a string of double take-worthy situations — including the palaver of Fabien Galthie’s selection as Brunel’s replacement and his early elevation to the World Cup staff, which have prompted the obvious questions over who is actually in charge.
Ex-Italy boss Brunel was a knee-jerk hire to replace Guy Noves in December 2017. There’s no doubt he took the job out of a sense of long-term loyalty to FFR president Bernard Laporte, who was about to do something the union had never done before — sack the national coach.
At the time they were hired, neither were the right men for the job. In Noves’ case, he accepted the role several years later than he should have done. As for Brunel, once Laporte’s faithful lieutenant, it’s debatable whether he ever was l’homme de la situation.
Refusing, however, would have made an already difficult situation worse for Laporte after he had decided to get rid of Noves — a coach he didn’t like and with whom he’d had several run-ins during his own time as France coach.
Brunel’s first year in charge was worse than his predecessor — three wins from 11, compared to Noves’ four from the same number of games. At least his final reckoning is likely to be better. France have managed four victories from eight outings so far this year, meaning he has already matched Noves’ final total of seven wins. With pool matches against Argentina, USA, Tonga and England to come, he would expect at least one more in the W column.
Given Les Bleus’ record since 2015, it is no surprise the FFR have been managing down expectations ahead of this World Cup, as they try to distract everyone with the shiny France 2023 bauble. Forget a serious assault on the knockout phase — Japan 2019 will be ‘a success’ if Les Bleus, currently ranked eighth in the world, get out of their pool. That is far from guaranteed, and would become nigh-on impossible if they lose their opener against Argentina.
Which brings us to Galthie — already named to replace Brunel after the World Cup — who was parachuted in to the coaching staff early following another dismal Six Nations.
Galthie was not Laporte’s first choice to take the senior men’s team reins at the FFR’s Marcoussis headquarters. But, Monsieur le president had few options after affiliated clubs rejected the idea of hiring a non-French coach.
Galthie — a TV pundit at the time, having been sacked as Toulon coach in the summer of 2018 — was perfectly placed to take the role, especially when likely big-name rivals Franck Azema, Ugo Mola, Christophe Urios, and Pierre Mignoni ruled themselves out one by one.
He was also cheap, as there was no contract to buy him out of — vital to the FFR, who were staring down the barrel of what would turn out to be a €1million employment tribunal payout for Noves.
Then there was his early call-up to the France set-up. “I have decided,” Brunel told ffr.fr in a contrived video outing in mid-May, “to strengthen the [coaching] staff with two people . . . physical trainer Thibault Giroud and Fabien Galthie.”
The order the names were listed in was hard to miss, but no one was buying the intended message, that this was head coach Jacques’ decision alone. The whole thing rang hollow.
The idea of Galthie joining the coaching staff up early was first mentioned two months earlier, after the Six Nations’ embarrassment at Twickenham. It had been an open secret for weeks by the time Brunel finally ‘announced’ it to an unshocked French rugby public.
Nor was anyone fooled by the pretence that Galthie would be just another assistant. One unidentified Top 14 coach told the website Rugbyrama: “The players aren’t stupid. They know Galthie will be the future coach [of France]. They will want to impress him ... They will push for him.”
Laporte is still, publicly, banging the Jacques-is-in-charge drum. After the 32-3 warm-up win over Scotland in Nice, he was asked in an interview on broadcaster RMC Sport which coach was behind the performance, Brunel or Galthie. He said: “The result is not [because of] the contribution of Fabien Galthie. The one who instructs the players is Jacques Brunel.”
Yet players are name-checking the new guy. “The gameplan, for me, is more specific than at the Six Nations,” hooker Camille Chat said in an interview with Le Parisien. “Galthie is a pragmatic person. We understand what he wants.”
Gael Fickou added: “What has changed since Fabien Galthie joined the staff? Everything is clearer, more certain. We know exactly what we have to do.”
Even carefully choreographed comments on the FFR website indicate a shift. Assistant coach Jean-Baptiste Elissalde insisted, as if he needed to: “Jacques is still the leader.”
Then he said: “Fabien has brought new ideas ... We’re a team. It is going well — the dynamics have changed.”
The final part of that last sentence, at least, is true. Since World Cup preparations began in July, the bulk of the work has been orchestrated by Galthie and Giroud, with input from a third member of the future staff — ex-Racing coach Laurent Labit, who has also joined early.
Officially, Galthie is the shouty sergeant-major, ensuring the orders of his commanding officer, Brunel, are carried out.
But the evidence Laporte and Brunel do not want us to believe is before our eyes. It was Galthie on the pitch, coaching drills before the games against Scotland. It was Galthie who watched Gregor Townsend and Conor O’Shea’s sides during their pre-match routines, looking for a weakness to exploit. In all three games Galthie’s high-intensity, full-throttle brand of rugby was on show.
Brunel, meanwhile, was up in the stands, meeting officials, or down in the tunnel speaking to the press, reduced to a glorified PR role. During the matches, he was behind a laptop, looking for all the world like an assistant.
If not nominally, Galthie is in charge. No one is willing to predict how his era — when it finally starts — will pan out. After all, three matches when you’re not officially the boss is no basis for judgement.
Maybe two wins and 14 tries mean this pre-dawn will lead to a real, rather than a false, one. Maybe not — Scotland and Italy are scarcely New Zealand, South Africa, or the number one-ranked side in the world.
And Brunel? He has been given the courtesy of an exit made to look like it’s on his own terms. It’s the least he deserves after the lumps he has taken in the past 21 months for his friend Laporte.