Time to hit the panic button?
July 6, 2010
France coach Marc Lievremont and FFR president Pierre Camou will not be enjoying their summer break © Getty Images
Given the last few weeks that they have endured, French sports fans could be forgiven for wishing that the 09-10 season should have finished at the end of May. The football team's farcical World Cup performance may have been greeted with sniggers by some in the rugby fraternity but France's end of season tour was no laughing matter either.
The two forty-point hammerings by South Africa and Argentina were an embarrassing end to what has been a vintage season for French rugby in general. A first Grand Slam in six seasons, an emotional Top 14 title triumph for Clermont and H Cup hegemony for French sides including a fourth Toulouse win made 2010 one to remember - but Marc Lièvremont will have returned home from Buenos Aires with plenty of food for thought when it comes to the national team.
Summer tours have always traditionally brought out some of the best and worst in this French side but the June 2010 vintage broke the mould - especially in the manner that they collapsed against Argentina. Notwithstanding the five-star performance from Felipe Contepomi, France looked bored, tired, disinterested and unmotivated. In fact you could throw a whole truckload of adjectives at Lièvremont's team at Velez Sarsfield and most of them will have stuck.
FFR president Pierre Camou laid the blame squarely on the shoulders of the players. "To wear the shirt is a privilege. You can lose but you don't have the right to not give all," he grumbled in an interview with Midi Olympique.
Time to hit the panic button? No, but a Gallic shrug of the shoulders will not be enough. This French side has undoubted potential but that promise seems only to be matched by the national habit of switching off when they don't feel like it. French rugby history is littered with embarrassing defeats at club and national level with Perpignan's loss away to Treviso in the first round of the Heineken Cup last season one of the more recent. Make no mistake about it, Lièvremont's squad were psychologically already on their holidays when they left Paris a fortnight ago.
The young French coach didn't help himself during the proceedings - he publicly questioned his players' motivation after the South African debacle - then moaned that the long season and injuries had unsettled his side after the loss in Buenos Aires.
Camou, the wily FFR president, and seemingly the rest of the world disagreed. "I hear the players are tired," added Camou. "I can understand it but that's no excuse against the Argentines, many of whom play [in the Top 14]. I'm awaiting an acknowledgment in the conscience of all, where everyone assumes their responsibilities."
With just over a year to the World Cup, it will be interesting to see how France rebound from this latest setback. Lièvremont had looked as though he had found the right blend of youth and experience during the Six Nations but it seems as though he will have to rely on some of his veterans a little longer than he might have originally entertained. Yannick Jauzion, William Servat and the imperious Imanol Harinordoquy were all badly missed on the tour, with the French backline looking particularly ragged without Jauzion babysitting the talented but flawed Francois Trinh-Duc. November's internationals could also see the return of the hitherto injured Damien Traille, a key player in the early part of Lièvremont's reign. Traille has said he wishes to play at fly-half so that could well mean curtains for Trinh-Duc, in the great French tradition of chopping and changing the No. 10. Whatever the French coach decides in the end however will be based on the first few months of next season, which starts in the middle of August. Unsurprisingly, there will be several players desperate to hit the ground running after such a disappointing summer tour.
It wasn't just the international team that was concentrating the minds of the FFR brains trust in the last week or so. The news that Bourgoin, one of French rugby's great nurseries of modern times, was denied a spot in either of the French pro leagues (Top 14 and Pro D2) next season was sadly, not a shock. Under financial pressure since former sugar-daddy Pierre Martinet sold the club two years ago, Bourgoin were booted out by France's financial watchdog, the DNACG, for not having their €900,000 contingency reserve in place. They've appealed to the FFR and are apparently confident of overturning the decision but what a sorry state of affairs for a great old club.
If they do go down, they'll follow Montauban to make up a grand total of four clubs relegated from the Top 14 this year (Bayonne, Albi, Montauban and Bourgoin). Bayonne were saved after Montauban's collapse into bankruptcy but there is some doubt that Albi could do the same if Bourgoin's relegation is to be confirmed because of their own financial problems. Is all this yet another sign that a Top 12 would be better for French rugby in the long run? Less games, less pressure on the smaller clubs to keep up with the big cheeses? Tell that to Racing Metro owner Jacky Lorenzetti who thinks that they should return to a Top 16. Why? Money of course! Some people never learn...