Knives are out for Lièvremont
November 30, 2010
Julien Bonnaire and Thierry Dusautoir let defeat sink in at the Stade de France © Getty Images
French rugby has known dark days in the past yet nothing, in recent times at least, has come close to the plunging low witnessed as Australia ran riot on Saturday evening at the Stade de France.
After a second-half performance that will go down as one of the worst by any French team in living memory, and with just 10 months to go before the World Cup in New Zealand, the knives are well and truly out for Marc Lièvremont and his coaching team of Didier Retière and Emile Ntamack.
Despite the result the beleaguered French coach was in defiant mood the morning after, saying that he wasn't prepared to walk away from his projet. "I am not sure that Pierre, Paul or Jacques could do better, even if they did it differently," Lièvremont told the assembled media at the Sunday press briefing."I'm still convinced that we are going about things the right way in terms of management, managing the squad, and strategy."
FFR president Pierre Camou piped up too, pledging his "solidarity" to the XV de France coaching triumvirate, but it remains to be seen if Lièvremont or backs coach Ntamack will be in place on February 5 next year, when France kick off their Six Nations defence against Scotland. Lièvremont is an honest and honourable guy but his belief in his own powers must be on the wane after a disastrous few months which has seen the Grand Slam-winners concede a cumulative 142 points in three Tests against Argentina, South Africa and now Australia. Yet it's amazing to think that eight months ago Lièvremont's boys were the toast of a nation.
That achievement came as something as a surprise to many, who had their doubts about the young French coach's credentials from the outset. Others were less than impressed that the Grand Slam had been achieved without a return to le rugby-panache, something that Lièvremont had originally promised. But despite all that, France at the very least seemed to be travelling in the right direction.
They are on a road to nowhere right now. Whatever the final score, what was most galling on Saturday was how easily the heads dropped when the Aussie onslaught kicked in. With a collective total of around 600 caps in the 22, there should have been enough experience to prevent total meltdown yet nobody, it seems, was prepared to put their hand up. As the scores racked up, the alarming drop in French line speed provided clear evidence of the total breakdown in communication and a lack of stomach for the fight.
Allied to this was a flawed match strategy that looked several years out of date. If anything has been learned this November, it's that kicking away possession does you no favours, especially against the All Blacks and Wallabies. Australia's match-winning third try came as a direct result of a deep French restart that allowed them to counter and build pressure in the red zone. And while, sadly, you might win a Six Nations title playing that type of game, the rift between hemispheres means that you'll likely win next to nothing anywhere else.
Then there was the issue of team selection. It was sad, and perhaps symbolic of the malaise, to see one of France's great servants of recent years, Damien Traille, drowning in the No.10 shirt and one can only assume that this particular experiment is now at an end. Lièvremont's decision to pair Aurelien Rougerie and Yannick Jauzion in the centre was another disaster and guaranteed a dearth of creativity in an area where France needed it most.
Toulouse's Clement Poitrenaud has been a revelation for his club this season at outside-centre yet for all his tinkering, Lièvremont chose not to give him a run this autumn. His Toulouse team mate Maxime Medard has probably been the form fullback in the Top 14 this season yet once more, he was discarded after a run on the wing against Fiji. Similarly, Vincent Clerc and Imanol Harinordoquy must be both wondering what they did wrong to miss out on selection. It wasn't the first time that Lièvremont has baffled with his selections but it has provided further evidence, if any was needed, that his vision is fatally flawed.
So where now for France and Lièvremont? Sections of the French media have reported divisions opening up in the French camp but with the next game due in February (just eight months before the World Cup) it's unlikely the FFR will ask him to fall on his sword. If there is any bloodletting, it could well be curtains for Ntamack, who has to take some of the responsibility for the performance of the backs. France do still have the players to do real damage in the Six Nations, and maybe even the World Cup, but don't have a coach who is able to bring them to the next level.
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