Ah, France. A rugby cliche-magnet, if ever there was one. A gravity well for lazy pundit soundbites to fall into. Turn on any live match involving Les Bleus and it’s only a matter of drinking-game time before a former player — to much sage round-table nodding — will come out with that fateful phrase, “you never know which France will turn up”.
Play the game on Sunday. Watch the broadcast of the quarter-final against Wales from the beginning, and have a mouthful of tea if you hear a variation on that theme inside five minutes. Two swigs if it’s inside the first two.
It’s long been a nonsense phrase, up there in the pantheon of bright Bleus cliches alongside “French flair” (one swig), “the mercurial [insert French player’s name here]” (one swig) and “oh no … what’s Huget done there?” (two swigs).
Outside TV pundit-land, few rugby supporters have seriously believed in French flair for years. Not since now-FFR President Bernard Laporte out-Anglo’d the English back in his coaching days, at the expense of eroding the genius that comes just this side of madness.
No national coach since has been able to reverse-engineer Laporte’s very un-French playing philosophy and get back to that mythical ‘French style’.
Yes, they have ground out the iron-discipline he instilled, but they have failed to turn whatever remained into rugby gold. In turn, this ongoing sporting alchemical failure has bred a generation of more-than-normally cynical fans.
These days, it’s not the hope that kills French rugby supporters as much as the resignation. Coming into the World Cup, even after winning two out of three warm-up matches, there was little expectation of impending improvement in fortune following years of chronic underachievement.
In part, that’s because the FFR had, after sacking Guy Noves at the end of December 2017, spent more than a year carefully managing tournament expectations, with the help of the distracting shiny bauble of winning the race to host the tournament in 2023. Forget a serious assault on the knockout phase, the message ran, Japan 2019 should be considered a success if Les Bleus got out of their pool.
The remaining lack of faith was prompted by the fixture list for Japan. France’s World Cup would have been all-but over if they lost their opener against Argentina — with England waiting to bookend their pool outings with a second, likely tournament-killing defeat.
But, France beat Argentina. They picked up a bonus-point win over USA. They survived that Tongan fightback. They qualified from their pool with a match to spare — important, admittedly only in rugby terms, as the decider against England was a victim of Typhoon Hagibis.
For the half-hour they have actually managed to play fast, flowing rugby in the 240 minutes of gametime they have so far been involved in, France have sometimes threatened to look dangerous. Admittedly, not quite dangerous enough yet to soothe that cynical streak running deep in Gallic rugby hearts — who would rather witness a heroic defeat than a boring victory.
“We’ll take the win,” is a phrase that French rugby chokes on. And that’s the problem. Win or lose — and French fans don’t mind losing, as long as they lose with style — French rugby has lost its elan. For years, fans have been force-fed a dull-witted game without anything approaching panache. No wonder they’re cynical.
And there has been plenty for them to smirk at in Japan. There was the farce over the replacement of the injured Demba Bamba. The FFR announced on social media that Uini Atonio would fly out as cover — only to then be informed he was injured.
Cue frantic trans-continental communications, before Racing 92’s Cedate Gomes Sa was named as cover and quickly pulled from the fray midway through a Top 14 match. There were those rumours of a player mutiny over the coaches’ apparent treatment of soon-to-retire captain Guilhem Guirado.
To cap it all, there was the Thomas Ramos affair. The Toulouse full-back was sent home from Japan after picking up a tournament-ending ankle injury during the Tonga game, and was replaced by Vincent Rattez.
A week later, with France’s Pool C decider against England off, a suddenly fit-again Ramos started for Toulouse in the Top 14 win over Castres. It’s impossible to escape the conclusion that his injury was a convenient cover story to replace a player not performing his best.
Despite all these media storms, the French camp in Japan remains calm. Players are even smiling during training sessions that take place without any efforts to hide what they’re doing.
Maxime Medard said:
We’re not fighting anyone. We’re just fighting for ourselves, to exist, to continue [in the World Cup]. There is no revenge to take, no fight against the world. We’re trying to make the best of it. Three months ago, no one saw us reaching the quarter finals.
“Now we’re here and they’re saying we’re no good. It’s like that, it’s a game. In 2011, no one saw us getting to the final, either. We’re rarely seen in the final in France.”
Les Bleus know what they need to do against Wales. They know how they plan to do it. And they know it’s easier said than done. France have not beaten Wales since the 2011 World Cup semi-final. Last time they met, in the Six Nations, they gave up a 16-0 halftime lead to lose 24-19 at Stade de France.
Louis Picamoles said: “Wales are a team we know well. We haven’t beaten them very often, but we’ve never been far off, either.
“[They have] one of the best defences in the world. A defence that misses few tackles, attacks opposing players and fights hard for the ball at the breakdown.
“To upset that, we must put speed on the ball and win the collisions. We have players for that. If we can do that, they’ll have a hard time slowing down the game. And that’s where a few flaws will open up.”
Gael Fickou added: “Speed will be key. We saw it in our first three matches in this World Cup against Argentina, USA and Tonga. As soon as we slowed down the game, after getting into a big lead, we were no longer able to win our battles.
“As soon as you fall into a restrictive game, you enter the opponent’s game. So, you have to play, you have to keep this grain of madness.”
That’s the French gameplan heading into the shiny new Fabien Galthie era, then. Madness. Or, more hopefully, the genius just this side of it. On paper, it looks like it could be fun. It all just depends on which France turns up.