Defending The Indefensible? The Trouble With Saint-Andre

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There's nowhere to hide for France rugby coach Philippe Saint-André
There’s nowhere to hide for France rugby coach Philippe Saint-Andre
CASTRES, FRANCE – TOULON head coach and former France boss Bernard Laporte has taken a full-on, everything-behind-it swipe at current French national coach and his predecessor at the all-conquering Top 14 side, Philippe Saint-Andre.

Saint-Andre, whose position in charge of Les Bleus is far from secure, stuck his head above the parapet to argue that the number of overseas players in the French top flight means that there aren’t enough homegrown players worthy of wearing the national team’s shirt.

He said: “Seven or eight years ago, the Aviva Premiership was made up of 70% overseas players. Now it is 70% English. With us, it’s the other way round.

“There are currently fewer than 10 wingers in the Top 14 who could play for France.”

He’s not alone in thinking that. But then he also dared question the length of the Top 14 season, insisting that the punishing schedule of the stupidly long French campaign was a key reason behind his side’s dismal showing in their three-Test series whitewash in Australia.

Excuses… Excuses…

Toulon coach Bernard Laporte
Toulon coach Bernard Laporte
Laporte – who was coach during a successful if utterly dull period of French rugby, and who could become Saint-Andre’s boss if he is elected president of the FFR, an ambition he has made no attempt to hide – did not mince his words in a scathing response.

“When Philippe Saint-Andre was at Toulon, he recruited a dozen foreign players,” he told respected French sports newspaper Midi Olympique. “Now, he says that foreigners are the reason France are losing.

“I’ve always said the France team must be the priority. Reading our current results makes me scream … we have become the Spain of rugby.

Philippe Saint-André with Mourad Boudjellal during his time in charge at Toulon
Philippe Saint-Andre with Mourad Boudjellal during his time in charge at Toulon
“In 2011, at the end of a disastrous World Cup, the English were in the same position as us, but they were able to ask the right questions. Suddenly, their national team is playing well. They are not the best in the world, but they have made consistent progress while we have not advanced one metre.”

Harsh words. Has Saint-Andre’s time in charge of Les Bleus been THAT bad?

Well… yes. But, in his defence, he’s been fighting a near-vertical uphill battle.

He was unveiled as the next coach of France in August 2011 – before the World Cup finals in New Zealand, which were farcical enough from a Bleu point of view, even though they made it to the final.

Marc Lievremont was contracted to guide France through the tournament, but had the square-root of no control of his players.

Imanol Harinordiquy revealed after the tournament that the players had rebelled during the group stages and – to all intents and purposes – coached themselves to the final. It put Lievremont’s notorious “spoiled brats” outburst when he castigated his charges for going out and celebrating their semi-final win over Wales into a very different perspective.

PSA leads the way... or not
PSA leads the way… or not
Saint-Andre took over as coach on December 1, 2011, with an impressive-sounding but ultimately meaningless promise to restore pride to French rugby.

At the time, he told Britain’s Daily Telegraph newspaper: “The players must accept that the France team is the window to French rugby and the image and message we send is important.

“Many youngsters take up the game because of what they see in the team … and we must make sure this image is always good.”

His promise was meaningless because there was no real pride left in French rugby.

Not where it matters. Saint-Andre’s current critic-in-chief Laporte himself had killed it years earlier when he stomped all over the mythical bravura “French” style that had typified Les Bleus’ legendary game and had made them such a terrifying and frustrating proposition in equal measure.

His considered, pragmatic – oddly English – approach, though undeniably successful, burned away that little, vital piece of French rugby’s soul. Possibly, disappointingly, forever.

Why has PSA failed as France coach?
Why has PSA failed as France coach?
Thanks to Laporte’s bore-them-to-death style, Saint-Andre inherited a shadow of French sides past – and, thanks to Lievremont, he inherited a rebellious, sullen bunch of “spoiled brats”. Worse, thanks to the FFR, he inherited a system that meant he didn’t have the access to his players that the other big Six Nations teams enjoyed.

It took him until the 2014 Six Nations campaign to win a two-week training period with his squad before the opening game of the tournament. France still weren’t very good, but they beat England on the opening day, and were a slightly forward pass away from denying Ireland – and BOD – the title on the closing night.

The Saint-Andre years had started so well. His first game was a 30-12 victory over Italy at Stade de France in February 2012. But things went rapidly downhill. After a draw against Ireland and losses to England and Wales, France finished the 2012 Six Nations Championship in fourth.

They then lost their first three games in the following year’s tournament before salvaging a 13-13 draw against Ireland in Dublin and picking up a their only win of the campaign against Scotland to finish the competition with the wooden spoon.

In fact, 2013 was a thoroughly miserable year to be a French rugby fan. Three wins in 11 matches makes – including a first home defeat in 16 years to South Africa – for thoroughly ugly reading.

This year’s record is marginally better. Three wins in eight games – with November’s autumn internationals to come could yet give Saint-André an excuse to quietly break out the halfway-decent Bordeaux at home, when nobody’s looking. But it’s a far-from convincing record heading into a World Cup year.

Saint-Andre, maybe desperately, points to the past as he tries to garner a shred of inspiration. He said: “The team conceded 50 points in New Zealand three or four months before the 1999 Rugby World Cup but they still reached the final.

“Then in 2010 they conceded 50 points at the Stade de France against the Australia, and yet 15 months later failed by a point in the final against the All Blacks.”

Unfortunately, he was in charge of neither of those teams. Nor was Laporte. Or, it really has to be said, was Lievremont.

But Laporte – who boasts four Six Nations titles including two Grand Slams and two World Cup semi-finals as France coach – says that Les Bleus must forget the four-year World Cup cycle and instead focus on consistent season-by-season success.

He agrees, at least, with Saint-André about the length of the Top 14 season.

He said: “We need to move to a Top 12. That would immediately mean an extra month to focus on the national team.

“That’s not all – we should remove the play-offs. With such a decision, you not only strengthen your league, with a real champion of France, but you get another three weeks for the national team.”

That’s his considered, pragmatic, view. It’s probably right. But it’s hardly French.

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About James Harrington 196 Articles
James Harrington... Before injury brought his rugby career to a timely end, journalist James was equally useless whether he packed down in the second row or at number 8, positions in which he represented his school and university with indistinction. The prolific one now lives in France with his journalist wife and three children and watches as much Top 14, European and international action he thinks he can get away with; justifying his obsession by claiming: "But it's all work, Honey!"