French problems run deeper than latest flop

A meeting of mopeds and Ferraris.

Not our words, unfortunately, but those of the first French journalist to turn the knife on Philippe Saint-Andre just moments after the French head coach took his seat at Saturday’s post-match press conference in the Millennium Stadium. Saint-Andre’s response was to describe the All Blacks as the Brazilians of rugby, which is fine, but this was a game that shone the most unforgiving of lights on the French and that demanded more than the departing coach’s effort to accept defeat with “dignity”.

Did he feel shame, he was asked? Yes, he did. When he was interviewed on the pitch shortly after the final whistle it was accompanied by a cacophony of boos from those French fans who had the stomach to stay in the Millennium Stadium to witness the absolute nadir. His four-year term is over. It is one that produced just eight wins in 20 Six Nations games and their worst ever defeat in a World Cup. He will not be missed, but Saint-Andre is merely the public face of a problem that runs much deeper in French rugby.

L’Equipe, whose savage player ratings peaked with a 4/10 for the back row Bernard Le Roux, ran one story with a picture of Saint-Andre, French federation president Pierre Camou and Serge Blanco, the former great who is high up that same food chain in the game. “Everyone is culpable,” said the headline.

Three simple words, but they sum up a hugely complicated problem. Pascal Papé spoke on Saturday evening of the 40-plus games per year their players are expected to play in the Top 14.

Saint-Andre has long banged that drum and he spoke again at the weekend about how France simply cannot afford to turn up at a World Cup every four years and hope that the three months they are afforded together prior to it can make up for the ground already lost. Yet, he sagged visibly when asked how the gap can be closed again.

“Honestly, I don’t feel like talking about it now,” he replied. “I have lost a lot of energy during my first two years talking about this. Today we had to make them doubt and we didn’t do it. International rugby is a different sport. The first scrum came in the 33rd minute. It’s a sport where there is movement, speed, technique. Winning contests in the open and one-to-ones. You see wingers today going over three tackles for a try.

“This is essential in modern rugby and it’s not (possible) with preparation every four years that our players could fight against a team like New Zealand. The frustration is more with the second-half against Ireland than today.”

Frederic Michalak’s retirement after the game at least takes one divisive debate out of the equation, though the appetite required to address issues far more profound than who it is who wears the number ten jersey was beyond the captain Thierry Dusatoir.

“We just lost a quarter-final and took 60 points and you can imagine I am not thinking about that,” he said. “Mostly, I am thinking about my teammates, to recover physically and mentally because the World Cup is finished for us and we must go back to our clubs and our competition.

“Back to reality and real life. Now is not the time for this.”

And therein lies the problem. “Now” is never the right time for ‘Les Bleus’.

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