France go for pragmatism over ambition
November 7, 2013
Times are looking bleak for France © Getty Images
This weekend's international against the All Blacks is the first of 19 Test matches France have in the run-up to the 2015 Rugby World Cup. Ample time you would have thought for the national coach to try, test, experiment.
Perhaps even take a bit of a gamble.
But those who have played for Philippe Saint-Andre will tell you there's little or no chance of that. "You know what you're going to get with Philippe," one confided recently with a cheeky chuckle.
And given France's record since Saint-Andre took over that's unlikely to change. To borrow one of football's most hackneyed lines, he is a coach under pressure. "We must win," he says.
France's national team have gone into reverse gear since their unlikely passage to the 2011 World Cup final which happened despite the madcap management of Marc Lievremont and a pool defeat at the hands of Tonga.
Under Saint-Andre, France have won just seven of their 18 internationals with only one of those coming against a side listed above them in the IRB rankings (33-6 against Australia in Paris last November). The only other victory over a top eight team since the last World Cup came a week after that Wallabies win, against Samoa.
It makes for grim reading, made worse by their woeful showing in 2013: they've won just one of eight Tests - 23-16 over Scotland in Paris in March.
Saint-Andre could justifiably point to those statistics and claim they are skewed by the fact just two of those eight matches were at home while three of the other six were in New Zealand.
Either way, it only serves to ramp up the pressure on Saint-Andre for whom this could prove to be the fortnight which defines his international coaching career. It starts with New Zealand in Paris on Saturday followed a week later by Tonga on the coast in Le Havre before heading back to the capital for South Africa on the 23rd.
It's a sequence of matches that couldn't be much worse: victory against Tonga is taken for granted - so he's on a hiding to nothing there - leaving the Tests against the world's two leading teams to define the state of the nation and, perhaps even, determine Saint-Andre's future.
So where is Saint-Andre at with his current squad? Toulouse, as you might expect, have more players in the squad than any other club. Eight of the 30 play their Top 14 rugby in the Ville Rose though they don't include Louis Picamoles who has been battling for fitness in recent weeks.
Picamoles played the first 40 minutes of the defeat at Brive on Saturday before being replaced by Thierry Dusautoir who retains the captaincy despite the return to fitness of Pascal Pape who missed most of the Six Nations and New Zealand tour because of a back injury. The Stade Francais lock has always been a niggling, occasionally brutal, presence whose disciplinary record this season is just about the worst in the Top 14.
That may even have had an influence on Saint-Andre's captaincy decision though it's probably more a reflection on the coach's luck than his judgment that Dusautoir, rather than Pape, spent time in the sin bin last weekend. Dusautoir's yellow card in Brive was his first for 2851 days or, put another way, since a Heineken Cup match in 2006 when he was still playing for Biarritz.
Loose-head is a problem position. Thomas Domingo, whose career has been blighted by knee problems, has been absent in recent weeks following arthroscopic surgery to repair a lesion of the medial meniscus. In his absence, Yannick Forestier has been rehabilitated to the squad from which he was dumped from a great height in February. Not good enough then, it seems only a shortage of options is what's making him good enough now.
No.8s Antonie Claassen and Damien Chouly are others who have come, gone and are now back again.
Elsewhere, there is further evidence the conservative Saint-Andre is in no mood to change his ways, summed up by his treatment of Jonathan Pelissie. The Montpellier scrum-half has been the outstanding 9 in the Top 14 this season. He has genuine pace and not just the sniping kind which sees him dart through confined spaces but the sort of sprinting speed which in September took him round and past Yoann Huget in a foot race through wide open spaces.
In Saint-Andre's judgment, though, Pelissie remains behind Morgan Parra, Jean-Marc Doussain, Maxime Machenaud and probably Freddie Michalak too. Despite being at Marcoussis this week he was sent home with three others on Tuesday night.
On the same basis, the Top 14's most impressive tight-head, 24-year-old Rabah Slimani of Stade Francais, seems likely to play second fiddle to the veteran Nicolas Mas who has started fewer than half of Montpellier's matches this season.
That of all the calls facing Saint-Andre this week sums up best the challenge the coach faces. Should he prioritise performance over the result and start building a team with 2015 the focus? Or is it all about being cautious, sticking with the tried and trusted, and hoping to squeeze a narrow win against a southern hemisphere superpower jaded by a combination of a 10-month season, six brutal Rugby Championship Test matches, and the sort of travel schedules few European players have ever experienced?
More of the latter than the former, I suspect. In Saint-Andre's alphabet P for pragmatism comes a long way before A for ambition.
France floundered against the All Blacks © Getty Images
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