PARIS, FRANCE – This month, RugbyWrapUp is checking in on the state of the Northern Hemisphere’s rugby unions a year ahead of the World Cup. We’re posting every Tuesday, so check back and see how your favorite nation stacks up. To see Scotland and Italy, click here and here. We’re profiling teams in reverse order of their finish in the most recent Six Nations tournament, so fourth place France headlines this week.
The Top 14 has consumed conversations about domestic rugby for much of the past year, for reasons both good and bad. Toulon’s story was as heartwarming as it could be, thanks to the retirement of Jonny Wilikinson. However, the specter of France’s monetary bullying continues to loom large over each of the other five unions, with Wales and Ireland suffering particularly. Now, France has begun to make eyes at the stars of the Southern Hemisphere, with Will Genia the latest rumored transplant. Simply put, the Top 14 seems to be going the way of the English Premier League. A small cadre of elite teams buy, rather than develop, talent, leaving about half of the league’s teams noncompetitive for the league championship. As a direct result, the pipeline of talent from domestic teams to the international sides falters, then fails entirely. France is assuredly in the “faltering” rather than “failing” stage, and still has some young talent to call upon in 2015 (Gael Fickou and Wesley Fofana immediately spring to mind). However, it is the trend that is immediately troubling. The Top 14 is a major driver of world rugby at the moment, and is dragging the game into an era of globalization kicking and screaming. None of this is to impugn the rugby that is played in the Top 14, which is generally of excellent quality (as James Harrington explains in his preview of the upcoming season). Last year saw the addition of British and Irish Lions Jonny Sexton, Jamie Roberts, and Jonathan Davies to French rosters. This season, Leigh Halfpenny is taking over Wilkinson’s kicking boots, and it has become a fact that non-French talent has a decisive impact on every season, while it is becoming harder to find French players that fill those rolls in their own league.
Our French savant covered the mess of a coaching situation last month, in an article prophetically titled “Defending the Indefensible.” Philippe St. Andre’s reign started with high hopes, but quickly devolved into farce. His inconsistent squad selection has played havoc with the confidence of several veterans, and his insistence on playing Fofana out of position is one of the more inexplicable coaching decisions of recent years. Saint Andre promised what Stuart Lancaster has delivered, vowing to “restore pride” in the national team’s shirt when he took over the position of head coach. Since that time, he has complained (not entirely without merit, but with no small degree of hypocrisy) that France’s national team is suffering because of the Top 14’s insistence on importing foreign stars. The tour to Australia was a new low, which is saying something for a coach that managed to lead France to their first Wooden Spoon in fourteen years. It is clear that France has quit on their coach, a situation that has now worryingly been repeated for each of the last two national team managers. There is no lack of armchair psychologists willing to diagnose problems in the national French psyche, but assuredly, they start at the top and France needs an immediate change in outlook. Serge Blanco has been drafted to help St. Andre deal with the “politics” of French rugby, effectively undermining the manager further. French rugby can always be counted upon to provide drama, and the coaching situation is no exception.
It is notoriously difficult to judge the state of the French national team. When they are properly motivated France can be a true force on any day. Unfortunately, this motivation is only produced by the stars aligning at the right angle, La Marseillaise being sung with sufficient fervor, and the disposition of a certain milk cow in the more remote regions of Provance. The “mercurial” nature of the team is often blamed by pundits, but it is difficult to believe that this is a built-in component of French teams. Instead, it is one that has been allowed to fester and develop. France have reaped the unfortunate results of a toxic team culture for the past three years. Their talent is undeniable, with Fickou, Fofana, and Hugo Bonneval forming a hugely exciting under-23 core. With the amount of experience that Morgan Parra brings to the side, it is all to easy to remember that he is only 25, two years younger than Danny Care. While France is walking a dangerous developmental path with the Top 14, at the moment, they continue to produce solid young talent with the potential to perform at an exceedingly high level. The forward pack is more problematic, and has begun to age noticably. Nicolas Mas has been looking every one of his 34 years for the past several internationals, and may be hard pressed to maintain his place in the side for the World Cup.
France has significant structural problems which have damaged the national team. If they are allowed to calcify, the harm may be irreparable, but this is a timeline which extends decades, not years. For the immediate future, their untenable coaching situation must be rectified, while the team always seems to find a way to motivate in time for the World Cup. The French would be embarrassed by going out in the quarterfinals, but it would be a fair reflection of the past four years.