For a team that has lost all three matches in this year’s Six Nations, the French have been remarkably positive as they prepare for what is undoubtedly going to be another bruising encounter against Ireland in Dublin this afternoon.
At their training ground in Marcoussis, just outside Paris, there have been smiles, joking and general bonhomie. Whether it is 100% genuine or not is hard to gauge because even the condemned man has been known to jest with his jailer; beneath it all lies the fear factor.
These are uncharted waters for this generation of French rugby players. The last time they lost their opening three fixtures in the championships was 31 years ago in 1982; they have claimed the wooden spoon just three times since the Second World War, in 1957, 1969 and most recently in 1999, a year in which they went on to reach the World Cup final.
They aren’t quite in wooden spoon territory yet but the players are highly conscious of the fact that another defeat in Dublin coupled with an unlikely Italian win at Twickenham would guarantee them bottom spot and the full wrath of the French public.
“It is going to be hard to repair the damage of the first three matches,” admitted veteran prop Nicolas Mas.
“We have just got to try and play a good match. We did some good things against England but we lacked some precision. In Dublin we have to be a lot tighter, more clinical and quicker. It will be very difficult but we have to be positive.”
Understanding how France got themselves in this position is still something of a head-scratcher. They performed well in the autumn, beating Australia, Argentina and Samoa.
But there hasn’t been the same cohesion in the Six Nations as they slipped up in Rome and collapsed dramatically against Wales. There was an improvement at Twickenham but, in a match where the use of the replacements made all the difference, they did not have the durability to go 80 minutes with the 23 of England.
Philippe Saint-Andre’s decision to bring in Pascal Papé as captain at the start of the tournament in place of Thierry Dusautoir unsettled the camp. Papé’s subsequent injury deprived them of their titular leader.
Another factor is that Saint-Andre still doesn’t know which is his best half-back pairing. Today it will be Morgan Parra, who is certainly the best No 9 in France, and Frédéric Michalak, who may be the second best. Michalak will wear 10 while the only specialist out-half, François Trinh-Duc, is on the bench.
With these crazy French, there is every chance Ireland will find Michalak and Parra swapping roles.
“This level of competition involves a lot of phases, and the scrum-half has to be everywhere,” said Parra.
“Alternating could be an interesting way to save time on the field, the player being closer to the ball acting as scrum-half to inject some pace. Communication is very natural in those situations.”
The return of Florian Fritz in place of the human bowling ball Matthieu Bastareaud should add subtlety without lessening its power while Max Medard, back on the wing after a serious knee injury against Scotland last year, is a natural finisher.
The French, though, are conscious of a growing public discontent. One columnist in the rugby newspaper Midi-Olympique this week suggested it would now be better for France to lose all five matches so that the federation can no longer paper over the cracks in the foundations of French rugby. This kind of attitude has helped strengthen the players’ resolve. Gone are thoughts of the beautiful French game. In their place the desire to chalk up a win.
“Winning ugly is still winning,” says winger Vincent Clerc. “Obviously, we’d rather enjoy some open play, reproduce what we’re doing in practice.
“But this is not what the competition is about. This is about being efficient and winning games. If the conditions are difficult and we have to win ugly, then we will if we can.
“That’s what we’re here for, now more than ever.”
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