Pressure building on Lièvremont
February 1, 2011
Time is not on the side of Marc Lievremont © Getty Images
A clash against a rejuvenated Scotland side could never be classified as the easiest game in which to rebuild his team's shattered confidence but France coach Marc Lièvremont will be thanking his lucky stars that they will be togging out in the Stade de France changing rooms rather than Murrayfield on Saturday.
His first job will be to banish memories of his team's previous game at Saint-Denis, when the Wallabies inflicted a record 16-59 scoreline to put last spring's Six Nations title firmly in the shade. But at the very least, France will be in their own backyard and they will know that if they show signs of getting back on the wagon, that they'll get the public support they so dearly need.
Right now, there doesn't seem to be much of it going around for the French coach. A likeable chap, Lièvremont bumbled his way through his first few years without being able to decide on a settled team and strategy before surprising everybody with a Test win against the All Blacks in 2009.
He did it again last year when his side staggered over the line to beat England and win the Grand Slam. But while last year's title was undoubtedly a great achievement, Lièvremont's time as coach has always been surrounded by swirling clouds of doubt and there are many who believe that last year's achievements merely papered over the cracks of a coaching set-up out of their depth.
In his media forays to date since the Australian debacle, Lièvremont has conceded that he was on the wrong track last season with regard to tactics and selection and has admitted that France must catch up quickly if they are to be ready for the Rugby World Cup. Yet nobody, not least Lièvremont, seems to really know what France should be aiming at come kick-off in New Zealand. On paper they continue to look like the northern hemisphere's premier international side but huge questions must now hang over the coach and whether he is the right person to deliver on the pitch. Will they make it out of the World Cup pool? Could they be semi-finalists? Winners? Maybe we should ask the Kiwis.
To be fair to Lièvremont, it seems that word 'consistency' has haunted French selections for generations. He hasn't been helped by the fact that he has an embarrassment of riches in certain positions compared to relative paucity in others. But he has failed to help himself during the course of his tenure by refusing to settle on his best side. The three-quarters in particular are a complete mess. There has again been a mass reshuffle following November's game against Australia and it could be argued that aside from the halfbacks, his backline have effectively been adrift since late 2007.
The return of Francois Trinh-Duc from injury at fly-half for the Scotland game will be of great relief to most of France, if only to never see the 77 times-capped Damien Traille in the post again. There will be gametime for the form winger in France, Toulousain Maxime Médard while Perpignan's Maxime Mermoz has recovered from injury and takes over from Yannick Jauzion at inside-centre.
The last time France played with anything approaching width was last year's Six Nations game against Ireland and until they manage they find that spark again, they'll struggle to beat teams.
One area where Lièvremont has few worries is up front. Unknown outside of France, forwards coach Didier Retiére has done a superb job over he last season or so moulding an excellent pack together. France's tight-five now has a settled look to it with Thomas Domingo, William Servat and Nicolas Mas forming one of the most destructive scrummaging front-rows in world rugby. Clermont's Julien Pierre partnera veteran Lionel Nallet in the second-row while the back-row sees the return of Imanol Harinordoquay alongside captain Thierry Dusautoir and Julien Bonnaire.
So what becomes an acceptable performance for France given what has gone before? FFR president Pierre Camou was a rock for his head coach back in November when he faced a torrent of pressure from the media but it remains to be seen how far he will go to back his man. Sacking a head coach just months before a World Cup is anathema in rugby but a confidence-sapping loss to Scotland would be another nail in the coffin for Lièvremont. With a trip to Lansdowne Road the following week, things could go downhill very quickly.
On the other side of the argument, three home wins and an away win against either England or Ireland would be enough for him to see out his contract. Either way, it seems that the time for tinkering is over. Lièvremont must show that he knows how to lead this French team in the right direction or it will be the end of 'the Tinkerman' too.
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