France stuck in reverse under Saint-Andre
November 28, 2013
France have been out-muscled and rattled in recent games © Getty Images
Two wins, a draw and eight defeats. 2013 will go down as the least successful international season for France in 33 years leaving coach Philippe Saint-André looking over his shoulder.
As a player Saint-André scored the try voted Twickenham's greatest and started 'the try from the end of the world', but under his leadership Les Bleus seem to have lost the spark that once typified their game.
That was never more obvious than in Saturday's home defeat to South Africa which was more one-sided than the 19-10 scoreline suggested.
Les Bleus were battered into submission by the bruising Boks and looked short of ideas despite dominating the possession and territory stats, a recurring theme this season. Fortunately for Saint-André, France won't face a team quite as powerful as the Boks in the Six Nations, but England will still provide a physical challenge first up.
So where does he go to solve the lack of go-forward so evident this weekend and just two years out from a World Cup?
The first solution is probably the easiest. Damien Chouly has waited patiently for his chance at No.8, but he couldn't fill the gaping hole left by Louis Picamoles. The Toulouse No.8 has struggled with injury this season but if he's fit and firing, he'll walk straight back into the side, there are very few in the game who can offer what he does.
While Picamoles' return will make a difference, a second ball-carrying weapon at close-quarters would be invaluable and with Dimitri Szarzewski's lineout troubles it might be time to give Christopher Tolofua a shot again.
Having burst onto the scene as an 18-year-old at Toulouse, he endured a difficult second season with his inability to hit his jumpers restricting his game time.
This year he has begun with a bang however, seemingly improving at the set-piece, and still a dynamic attacking option both in close and setting up mismatches in the wider channels. He remains raw but it's worth seeing if he's ready to make the step up.
The final issue in the pack comes in the balance of the back-row, which currently is a little out of kilter. Thierry Dusautoir and Wenceslas Lauret are both fine players but surely too similar to start in the same back-row.
A lack of support play was a major issue in November, an Olivier Magne type always on the shoulder would have been a godsend with a talent like Wesley Fofana making breaks.
The problem for Saint-André is that the options in the Top 14 are slim. Bernard Le Roux is another who looks stronger defensively while Yannick Nyanga hasn't quite kicked on from last year's excellent displays against Australia and Argentina and Fulgence Ouedraogo has been ruled out with a shoulder injury.
Given the lack of alternatives Nyanga might be the way to go but it could be worth taking a look at some up and comers like Toulon's Virgile Bruni, provided he gets back into Bernard Laporte's good books, or Racing's Camille Gérondeau.
The pack needs work, but they should still go toe to toe with most of their Six Nations rivals, however that will be of little use unless France can solve their backline issues. The parts look in place in the three-quarters, with Brice Dulin particularly impressing, although a woeful kick-chase will have to improve.
But as always it's the halfbacks which are not quite firing. Morgan Parra has had an underwhelming start to the season and was picked more on reputation than form.
How many Frenchmen does it take to stop Duane Vermeulen? © Getty Images
The chargedown try conceded to JP Pietersen aside, he wasn't actually that terrible, but a knee injury will provide the perfect opportunity to blood some other options.
Jean-Marc Doussain is the next cab off the rank, and while not as glamorous a pick as Montpellier's Jonathan Pélissié, he's probably been the best nine in the country over the last month or so. The electric Pélissié should also get a chance provided he maintains his fine early-season form.
The bigger question will come at fly-half though, where Rémi Talès improved his kicking game but still looked like a temporary solution. Freddie Michalak may get the starting jersey back although his year mirrored France's struggles and he has a long way to go to convince.
Of those who didn't feature Camille Lopez started the season well before an ill-timed suspension ruled him out of the squad, while Jules Plisson will likely struggle for game time once Morne Steyn settles in at Stade Français. Both would appear to offer a more creative solution to a team who scored just 13 tries in 11 games.
What's clear is that two years out from the World Cup France have a number of issues, and although Saint-André has justifiable gripes at the lack of preparation time compared to his international counterparts, the team appears to be going backwards.
It's not out of the question that they could turn it around by the Six Nations, after all a year ago they were coming off a perfect November series only to pick up the Wooden Spoon, and the reservoir of talent is there for the most part.
But even with the seemingly unflinching support of the FFR, Saint-André probably needs a top two finish in the Six Nations to stop the calls for his head from becoming too loud to ignore.
Having said that, the FFR's first priority should be fixing the pitch at the Stade de France which currently isn't fit for purpose.
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