Is Saint-Andre answer to French prayers?
March 27, 2012
Wesley Fofana was one of few positives for France during the Six Nations © Getty Images
One of the more interesting things about French rugby is the manner in which the supporters tend to incubate themselves from poor results at international level.
Championship wins come and go, as they did with quite frightening regularity in the early part of this century, but there has always been a feeling in the Midi - the heartland of French rugby - that unlike club rugby, supporters can take or leave the XV de France with the shrug of their shoulders.
There's been no shortage of shoulder-shrugging over the last couple of weeks since France's last Six Nations game against Wales. On the face of it, the 2012 Six Nations will not be a tournament that will go down as fondly remembered in Philippe Saint-André's household. The France coach, in his first season in charge, managed to outdo the universally pitied (some would say despised) Marc Lièvremont and guide France to fourth place - their worst Championship finish since 2001. Saint-André did it by selecting the oldest and most experienced side in the Six Nations and then topped it off by getting them to play rugby that rivalled Italy in terms of attractiveness. Quite the feat don't you think?
The French have never been an easy bunch to read but the abject nature of their performances was genuinely puzzling. Here were players that had come so close to winning a World Cup, with a new coach, yet there was no sparkle in the eye, no arrogant posturing and certainly no cock crowing. Instead we got selection mistakes, tactical naivety and a bunch of players who looked like they had just met for the first time.
This is no time to panic however. Yes, the results and performances have been disappointing, and with so many seasoned France internationals close to retirement (seven of the pack against Wales were over the age of 30) or over the hill in terms of performance, Saint-André has the opportunity to begin moulding his own team - a task that should feel easier given the results of England and Wales this season.
A two-test trip to Argentina could never be described as the easiest place in which to blood new players but Saint-André is a pragmatic man and will realise it's the ideal window if he gets the blend of youth and experience right. In particular need of overhaul is the front five, with particular focus on hooker. William Servat has been a wonderful servant of Toulouse and France in recent years but his time is at an end, while inconsistency has plagued Dimitri Szarzewski's career. Saint-André will hope that Perpignan's Guillaume Guirado can work on his darts as the cupboard is looking pretty bare for France at hooker.
Saint-André will also be praying that Clermont loose-head Thomas Domingo can find a way back to fitness before too long. The 26-year-old has missed most of the last year with two serious injuries but was the best young loose-head prop in Europe before his injury. Meanwhile expect Nicolas Mas to continue on the tight-head side for the foreseeable future, despite him being 'rested' against Wales. Saint-André is under slightly less pressure at lock, having successfully blooded Yoann Maestri as a replacement for the retired Lionel Nallet while we can expect Maestri's Toulouse partner Romain Millo-Chluski alongside him in the second row for club and country.
Fused with the Anglo-Saxon attitude of needing to have a game manager at outside half, Saint-André toyed with the option of Lionel Beauxis during the Six Nations but his disappointing performances should see Francois Trinh-Duc re-claim the No.10 jersey. It's quite remarkable how a rugby country the size of France has gone so long without a top class flyhalf but Warren Gatland proved to Saint-André during the Six Nations that you can win games without a strong game-manager at flyhalf.
By far the brightest moment of the Six Nations from Saint-André's point of view was the emergence of Clermont Auvergne's Wesley Fofana at international level. A centre blessed with the ability of scoring tries is a valuable asset in any team and Fofana's knack of running the right line could cause havoc in years to come if he has the right partner. Aurelien Rougerie is another whose time on the international stage is coming to an end so Saint-André must look towards Yann David at Toulouse.
With the Top 14 heating up and the Heineken Cup quarter finals only around the corner, Saint-André has the added frustration as France coach of watching his already jaded players pressed into further action. Guy Noves of Toulouse and Vern Cotter of Clermont Auvergne will share his pain, but they have other things to worry about than another poorly organised end of season jaunt to the southern hemisphere.
Welcome to international rugby Philippe, it doesn't get any easier. Just ask Marc Lièvremont.
© ESPN Sports Media Ltd.