A new French revolution?
February 16, 2010
Morgan Parra sparked France into life on Saturday © Getty Images
France, after two years of reconstruction, are beginning to look like the real deal. At times in the Stade de France last weekend, Marc Lièvremont's side looked like they belonged in a different hemisphere to Grand Slam champions Ireland, never mind in another league.
Was this another classic example of the French turning up when they felt like it or was there something more to it? Was it a sign perhaps that Lièvremont's two years of tinkering has finally produced a team worthy of battling for the Webb Ellis Trophy in New Zealand next year?
The 41-year-old French coach certainly believes so. France will go to Cardiff on February 26 with new-found hope that this year's Six Nations could net them their first Grand Slam since 2004 - a veritable lifetime for a country that won four in the seven years before that. Dampening expectations has hitherto not been part of Lièvremont's job profile as French coach but it's funny how things can change after a performance like the one we saw in Paris last weekend.
Be that as it may, this is the Six Nations, and as Scotland found to their cost in the Millennium Stadium, things don't always work out in a linear fashion. But on paper at least, there is every reason to believe that Lièvremont has finally found a squad worthy of challenging for the World Cup next year. There now seems to be a spine to the side, led by the magnificent Thierry Dusautoir. There is experience in the shape of former captain Lionel Nallet, Imanol Harinordoquay and Yannick Jauzion. There is that all important transfusion of young blood in prop Thomas Domingo, flanker Fulgence Ouedraogo and scrum-half Morgan Parra. Lastly and most importantly, there are growing signs that France have finally found a fly-half of international quality in Montpellier's François Trinh-Duc.
It's also worth noting that Lièvremont had just seven starters involved from the South Africa win during the autumn internationals. Fabien Barcella, Romain Millo-Chluski, Cedric Heymans, Louis Picamoles, Julien Dupuy, Maxime Mermoz, Yann David and Damien Traille all missed the Irish game through injury or suspension, generating further evidence that for all his tinkering, Lièvremont has built a squad with quite a bit of depth.
On the pitch, there were so many impressive elements to their victory that it's difficult to stress one as more important than another. Once again we saw the discipline to this France side that helped them get over the line against the All Blacks and South Africa last year. In the first-half in particular, they starved the Irish and Ronan O'Gara of the opportunity to get back into the game, defending resolutely what they had to, especially as the half wore on.
But just as important was their ability to inject pace into the game. Despite a shaky lineout, France seemed to win quick ball when it mattered, thanks to some stellar work at the breakdown and the lightning fast delivery of Parra. Then there was Trinh-Duc. He had a superb game, mixing it up and keeping the Irish back-row honest. Credit must go to Lièvremont here once again for sticking with the youngster over the last six months, when many others in the French media were saying otherwise. In all, there was a balance and power to the French side that we haven't seen in the Six Nations in recent years.
There is however an elephant in the room; the dreaded word 'consistency' has plagued the French team since the days of Asterix and Obelix and it could be here, with all the talk of Grand Slams and Championships, that Les Bleus could come unstuck. Lièvremont and just about every other person in France is aware of it too, yet no-one seems to be quite sure how to get them turning up for games on a consistent basis.
Indeed, to put it in context, France have yet to win three consecutive matches in the two years that Marc Lièvremont has been coach. That third game comes this year at - you've guessed it - the Millennium Stadium, so it's quite conceivable that a win there will tell us more about this current French side than the impressive Irish win suggested.
They won't have it their own way at Cardiff with Wales anxious to build on their victory over Scotland. But this is Lièvremont's opportunity to finally get his name on some silverware and in the process, set his charges up nicely for world cup year next year. The talent is there - the performance against Ireland would have put to bed any lingering feelings that France were lacking steel in a few positions. This current generation of players are the real deal. What remains left to figure out is if this French management can mould a very talented group of players into winners. And quite frankly, if it's not going to be this year, it won't be any year.