Lievremont sparks club v country quarrel
November 9, 2010
Marc Lievremont has received the wrath of club coaches © Getty Images
Say what you like about Marc Lièvremont but he certainly isn't afraid to speak his mind, even if it means drawing the ire of his fellow professionals. You'd have to wonder about his timing however, because his penchant for saying things to the media which in turn loads further pressure on his job is second to none.
A few weeks ago, he was at it once more, lamenting the lop-sided pro-club structure of French rugby and dropping some heavy hints about stepping down after the World Cup, hardly the ideal way to start such a hugely important season. Granted, things are tough at the moment for the Grand Slam champs with a whole host of players missing through injury and suspension. It's difficult to see what Lièvremont will be able to learn from Saturday's dead rubber against Fiji in Nantes although the prospect of playing bogey team Argentina the following week will surely concentrate the mind.
But it was the matter-of-fact way in which he played the victim card in the interview with Sudouest - in a country where club rugby still retains hegemony in popularity over the national side - that seemed to get on people's nerves the most.
"I think I've suffered too much," said Lièvremont of his time so far as French coach. "Although there has been progress, the French team is anything but a priority for French rugby. I feel really frustrated by this. I don't think it's going to get any better."
These were hardly the kind of comments you would have expected from a Grand Slam winning coach less than a year out from the World Cup. Where was the confidence of the ambitious young coach who was going to lead France to their first World Cup win? Where was the guy who once said that putting the panache back into French rugby was his primary goal? Had his three years as French coach already sucked the zest for the game out of Lièvremont?
He added, "The Top 14 is too powerful. We are trying to sustain an operating model which is unique in the world. It certainly gives French rugby its strength but it can't satisfy an ambitious coach who wants to give himself the best means possible to win."
It's not the first time that the French coach has had a go at the growing power of the French clubs. And of course, he's absolutely right to point out that as French coach, he is put at a massive disadvantage compared to other international coaches when it comes to player access. But Lièvremont knew this stuff when he took the job on and to complain in the manner in which he did was disingenuous to say the least.
A few days later, Biarritz president Serge Blanco put the boot in. "The coach of the French team says he wants to be a World Champion," said Blanco. "We can be World Champions. But if he's crying a year before that he doesn't have the means, how does he select players who know he's gone after the World Cup? If he doesn't want to [manage] for the World Cup, then he should go."
It was real fighting talk from Blanco and it served to illustrate that last year's Grand Slam aside, many in the clubs are now losing confidence and patience with Lièvremont as French coach. Over the last few decades or so, relations between the clubs and the national coach have been frosty at best but Lièvremont's tenure has so far seen those relations turn downright arctic.
When he was appointed head coach in late 2007, he was seen as something of a union stooge and a legacy of former FFR and current IRB president Bernard Lapasset. But Lièvremont had done few favours for himself with his constant sniping of the clubs, with seemingly little or no criticism directed elsewhere.
As the most experienced and most decorated of all club coaches, Guy Noves is positioned better than most to judge Lièvremont's criticisms. Speaking to Midi Olympique recently, Noves said he shared Lièvremont's concerns about the number of games the top players must play but went on the attack on the issue of player access, taking a swipe at the south hemisphere in the process.
"The southern hemisphere countries are impacted by the limitations of their system," said Noves. "If these guys understood that pre-season starts in the clubs and not in a training camp for three months, perhaps one day we will see true professionals. The summer tours are a constant disaster. The competence of the French team is never in question. When the southern [nations] come here in November, it's exactly the same problem.
"The problem is that the officials want to get the maximum amount of money. If everyone doesn't start pulling in the same direction, rugby will head towards failure."
With the possibility of twelve midweek matches next season, the Top 14 is going to be hit hard - a sacrifice that Noves feels is "scandalous". And while he has conceded in the past that he would like to see fewer league games in a smaller Top 12, he feels that in a World Cup year, it should be the Six Nations that pays the price.
"It would allow us a little to have a normal championship in a World Cup year. How do you ask guys who play in a World Cup to play the Six Nations then on tour at the summer? These people are completely mad and irresponsible.
"I don't understand why the guys in the IRB don't listen. It wouldn't devalue the Six Nations to not have it in a World Cup year. On the contrary, people would be more motivated to come back to a Six Nations the following year because they would miss it."
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