Is Saint-André stumbling in the right direction?
Martin Gillingham
November 14, 2014

There have been more downs than up in Saint André's reign to date, but are France close to turning the corner? © Getty Images

November. France against Australia. The World Cup just 10 months away. And on Saturday evening the bleu-clad faithful will traipse north from the centre of the capital up to Saint-Denis knowing perfectly well that whatever happens over the coming hours will likely have no bearing at all on what happens across La Manche next Autumn.

Four years ago, the Wallabies were, as they are this weekend, the visitors to the Stade de France. Captain Thierry Dusautoir knows all too well what happened that night. So too Nicolas Mas and Yoann Huget. All three were there from the moment Bryce Lawrence blew the first whistle to when he blew his last. Not that any of the France trio heard Monsieur Bryce's denouement that night, drowned out as it was by the oh-so-French howls, jeers 'n whistles. The chorus of 59,000 had passed their judgement. Throw them to the lions.

It had been one of French rugby's most humiliating nights with the first 50 minutes having given no hint of how it was to finish. Morgan Parra's penalty had just edged Les Bleus in front 16-13 when replacement prop Benn Robinson crashed over to give Australia the lead. What that prompted was a combination of merciless onslaught and supine submission. Five more Wallaby tries in twenty-odd minutes. It finished 16-59.

Eleven months later, France came within a whisker of winning the World Cup.

Rugby's a funny old game. In France it can be even funnier.

Hope is what gets us up in the morning. So too for the French. Which is why there is a sense that this weekend things will be different. That, of course, and France's 80 minutes against Fiji in Marseille last Saturday.

Philippe Saint-André's tenure has been characterised by conservatism, pragmatism and failure. Magnificent player, genial human being, coaching dullard. Yet now there is just a chance his coaching reputation can be redeemed, even enhanced.

Whether it's borne out of desperation, a bright light on his horizon, or a word from Serge Blanco in his shell-like, Saint-André appears to have cast off his cloak of conservatism.

In Marseille, the great and the good of French rugby were so numerous that they were virtually falling over one another in the coaches' box. Saint-André, Patrice Lagisquet and Yannick Bru have now been joined by Serge Blanco whose new involvement with the national set-up offers a welcome distraction to the decline of his beloved Biarritz.

Even Romain "Robocop" Teulet is on the firm. Never capped by France, the pint-sized wizard is the kicking coach. Not that Saint-André's France have ever needed a kicking coach; what they've needed for the past couple of seasons is a kicker… and a fly-half. Now they've found both, all rolled into one.

Camille Lopez is the real deal though it has taken almost two years for the France brains trust to recognise it. In February 2013, he marshalled Bordeaux-Bègles to a 41-0 thrashing of Toulon. It was at precisely the same time that the French Press was in meltdown over the nation's lack of quality 10s while Saint-André was still caught in Michalak mode. But there "he" was plying his trade at the then unfashionable Bordeaux.

In fairness to Saint-André he did pick Lopez for the 2013 summer tour of New Zealand, started him in the first Test, only to dispose of him rapidement. On his return Lopez moved on to Perpignan and was passed over for selection in November. A few weeks later he sustained a serious knee injury which ruled him out of the second half of last season and out of France contention until he'd resumed playing three months ago - this time for his third club in three seasons, Clermont.

Camille Lopez is tackled by a Sale defender, Clermont Auvergne v Sale Sharks, European Rugby Champions Cup, Michelin stadium, Clermont-Ferrand, October 26, 2014
Clermont fly-half Camille Lopez is the real deal © Getty Images

Whether it's borne out of desperation, a bright light on his horizon, or a word from Serge in his shell-like, Saint-André appears to have cast off his cloak of conservatism. Seven Frenchmen - ok, four Frenchmen, two South African-born backs and another who was born in New Zealand and has played for Samoa under 20s - made their France debuts in Marseille on Saturday and none perished in the environment.

Teddy Thomas was on the end of Lopez's perfect kick-pass to score his first Test try with his first touch while Scott Spedding created the two scores that made up Thomas's hat-trick. There's nothing flash about Racing centre Alexandre Dumoulin but he's a complement to the more refined skills of Wesley Fofana while Rory Kockott may be the No.1 scrum-half before long. Charles Ollivon had only started six Top 14 matches before this season but the Bayonne No.8 is a shoo-in for 2015 while Xavier Chiocci and Uini Atonio will get further opportunities.

In terms of the overall team performance, France flew swiftly out of the blocks against Fiji and finished like a Derby winner but went missing for a sizeable chunk in the middle. It was definitely not a full 80-minute performance and such frailties would be exposed more ruthlessly by Australia.

Finally - and I'm sure PSA is the last person to revel in the misfortune of others - I suspect he may have afforded himself a bit of a giggle last Friday night while watching Montpellier play Brive from his hotel room.

Montpellier coach Fabien Galthié is tipped by many to head up the next France management team. On Friday, though, he just about presided over his side's 25-10 home Top 14 defeat to struggling Brive. Montpellier were out-thought and out-played throughout while the body language of their apparently uninterested coach will have done nothing for a side in need of direction and inspiration.

Following France is a bit like getting married for a second time - the triumph of hope over experience. Perhaps the marriage metaphor applies equally to coaches? PSA may not be the ideal partner but for now it's a case of better the devil you know.

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