Lievremont set to have last laugh
February 24, 2010
France coach Marc Lievremont appears to have found the perfect balance of brains and brawn © Getty Images
Mathieu Bastareaud Thierry Dusautoir Imanol Harinordoquy Marc Lievremont Morgan Parra Clement Poitrenaud Francois Trinh-Duc
Marc Lievremont was heavily criticised at home and abroad when he announced he was going to use his first season or so in charge of the French team to try all sorts of experiments.
He has now used more than 70 players since taking over as national coach from Bernard Laporte after the 2007 Rugby World Cup and the carping continued right through to the end of last season but now it appears there was method to his so called madness and he has largely settled on the squad of players who will take him through to the next World Cup.
The first signs that he was heading in the right direction came during last summer's tour to New Zealand. His side had underachieved in the previous two Six Nations Championships but were now once again a force to be reckoned with and came away with a memorable victory over the All Blacks at Dunedin.
They also found a new skipper in Thierry Dusautoir. He went as the stand-in for Lionel Nallet but did such an impressive job that he now has the job on a permanent basis. Lieveremont certainly chopped and changed combinations but he has somehow created a tremendous team ethic and the most impressive thing is the way he has brought the best out of players who were in danger of never fulfilling their potential. Most of them had surfaced under Laporte but quite a few had fallen out of favour.
Clement Poitrenaud, the Toulouse fullback was one. He looked a world beater when he first came into the side but then lost his edge. Now it is back - he is big, fast and a wonderful runner reminiscent of the great Serge Blanco.
Francois Trinh-Duc is another. Perhaps he was too young when he was first capped but he now looks the most exciting playmaker in the northern hemisphere and there are already signs that he and Morgan Parra, the Clermont Auvergne scrum-half, are forging a very special half-back pairing. Yannick Jauzion and Mathieu Bastareaud are also striking fear into opponents in the centre. Jauzion has been a class act for some seasons but the way Bastareaud has trained on after the strange goings on in New Zealand has been a revelation.
Few people can make Brian O'Driscoll look feeble but the great Irishman had no answer when the youngster rode his tackle, made the all important half-break and off-loaded for a sensational try in Paris a fortnight ago. In the forwards the coach has reverted to tradition - a big nasty front five with a ball playing but powerful back-row to provide the cement between backs and forwards.
Imanol Harinordoquy was another who looked to be drifting towards oblivion but is now rejuvenated and playing with the fire and skill that made him a hero for every French Basque. Dusautoir made an astounding 28 tackles when the French upset the All Blacks in the World Cup quarter-final in Cardiff but he is far more than just a Serge Betsen-type destroyer - more a rival to Richie McCaw - and with Fulgence Ouedrago or Julien Bonnaire on the other side it is again a formidable unit.
Far too good I fear for Wales, their opponents on Friday evening. The Welsh are suffering from the same old problem - lack of depth. They tried to rush Gethin Jenkins back against Scotland before he was ready and paid the penalty - how he will be missed against France - and now they are gambling on Mike Phillips but they have little choice. With all their front line players available Wales might have been able to trouble France but without them the forwards in particular will not be able to compete. I just cannot see how Wales can win.
It is also a season defining weekend for England. Although they deserved to beat Wales they were helped enormously by Alun-Wyn Jones's moment of madness and then, even though they appear to be in denial, were back at their absolute worst against Italy. Jonny Wilkinson was never the greatest attacking fly-half, he lacks that edge of pace that would allow him to pose more of a threat himself, but he is a superb passer and kicker.
When England won the World Cup their game was forward dominated (Martin Johnson made sure of that) so that was enough but now he has to change his game or give way to a Toby Flood or (dare I say) Danny Cipriani. Why he is not told to stand flat and throw those pinpoint passes along the gain line where they can do real damage I shall never know.
Ireland are great at doing exactly that and by choosing Jonathan Sexton to replace Ronan O'Gara at fly-half they have confirmed their belief that attacking running rugby is the way forward. If only England would commit to the same principles they might start to make progress - with or without Jonny.
I fancy Ireland to beat England and Italy definitely have a chance against Scotland but put your money on France for the Grand Slam if you can get anybody to take the bet and while the odds are still good get one on for the World Cup as well.