Lievremont's Heineken Cup blues
January 20, 2009
France coach Marc Lievremont is struggling for options at fly-half and up-front © Getty Images
The prospect of this year's Heineken Cup quarter-finals devoid of any French sides is a blow to Marc Lièvremont's Six Nations ambitions and a damning indictment of the huge problems that he faces from within French rugby.
It can't have been an ideal way to spend the weekend before deciding on your Six Nations selection. And when Marc Lievrèmont sits down to ruminate for the last time over his squad on Tuesday evening, his critical eye will continue to be cast over what has probably been the worst weekend for French clubs since the inception of the European Cup in 1995.
Undoubtedly by then, he'll have watched on DVD the humiliation of Toulouse, the side that has in recent years provided the spine of the French side. He will have watched Stade Francais' stuttering defeat away to the Scarlets . And he was there at Stade Aime Giral to witness at first hand the Ospreys giving Perpignan a fright.
So when the French coach insisted on Sunday that he would not take too much from the weekend, most people could understand where he was coming from.
Indeed, it's highly likely that this weekend's results will have relieved some of the pressure on Lièvremont. In some respects, this year's Six Nations was always going to be a watershed for his fledgling international career but many will now question whether France does have the players of the necessary ability to win Grand Slams.
From the beginning of his tenure as coach, Lièvremont has been highly critical of the Top 14, believing that the number of games and the amount of overseas players plying their trade in the top two divisions was damaging professional rugby in France. After the weekend's results in the Heineken Cup, there will be plenty who would agree with him.
Lièvremont and his forwards coach Didier Retière will have noticed how easily Toulouse were blown away at the breakdown against Glasgow and in the face of this, the coaching team will be praying for the imminent return of the highly influential Thierry Dusautoir.
The 27-year-old has blossomed into a world-class flanker since he came of age in the last Rugby World Cup. Dusautoir could well be joined by Clermont's Julien Bonnaire and Montpellier's Louis Picamoles in what would be a dynamic looking backrow.
But it's not just extra dynamism that Lièvremont has to find. It's been a few years since we last saw a grizzled young French forward in the shape of an Ibanez or a Pelous coming through and it's something that the French coach is acutely aware of.
French packs used to scare the life out of many a visiting side but that grunt just isn't there to the same extent anymore. Lièvremont will hope that the young Toulon lock Yoann Maestri could become the next big thing but it remains to be seen if the former will take a gamble with the latter for this Six Nations.
The French coach is also expected to welcome Lionel Beauxis back into the squad after missing the autumn internationals through injury. Beauxis has long been seen by many observers as the heir-apparent for France's problem position of outside-half. But in his ten starts for Stade Francais this season, he's only started three times in the No.10 shirt, the last of which was at the beginning of October.
With David Skrela out injured until midway through the Six Nations, the position is an area of real concern for Lièvremont who must decide whether or not to play the out of sorts François Trinh-Duc, Jean-Baptiste Elissalde or Beauxis in the pivotal role. If he does play Elissalde at No.10, he could well go for his team mate Frederick Michalak alongside him. The two players lined out in inverse for Toulouse last weekend but Lièvremont sees Michalak as a scrum-half and could well select him despite his patchy form since his return from South Africa.
An area where the French boss will be less worried about is the back five. Both Aurelien Rougerie and Julien Malzieu will be expected to start ahead of the Toulouse wingers Vincent Clerc and Cedric Heymans.
But the rest could be a Toulousain triangle with Maxime Medard at fullback joining the centre partnership of Yannick Jauzion and the in-form Florian Fritz. Fritz was one of the few players to finish the Glasgow game with any credit and could get the nod ahead of Clermont utilty back Benoit Baby or Damien Traille.
France's first game is in Croke Park against Ireland on February 7. Ireland coach Declan Kidney will know that the visitors tend to be slow starters and will undoubtedly seek to capitalise. For Lièvremont, he must quickly settle on his best side and hope that he can catch the Irish off guard.
A win in Dublin would be a huge boost in confidence and with the following two games in the Stade de France against Scotland and Wales it's not inconceivable that France could meet England on the March 15 with three wins in the bag and on a Grand Slam roll. Not inconceivable yet not very likely either.