French Rugby has a problem, and it's not Jacques Brunel
The clear lack of accountability running through this French side is striking. Whilst expensive foreign imports stunting the growth of the nations younger crop is a valid sentiment, it is not an excuse for the French internationals to produce the level of performance they currently are.
In the midst of another underwhelming campaign, French rugby once again finds itself under the microscope it has long battled to liberate itself from. Player revolts to a plethora of coaching changes, nothing has halted the obvious decline in a nation once regarded as one of rugby’s most dominant. Gone are the days of World Cup victories over The All Blacks and Six Nations Grand Slams, as the rugby world becomes more accustomed to bouts of self-implosion, regressive unpredictability and ultimately, failure. A monumentally calamitous opening night in Paris was compounded with embarrassing defeat at Twickenham, Huget’s ill timed juggling at the Stade de France would be just the start, as a remorseless England then tore through a sheepish XV.
Naturally, a great inquisition was to open into just what went wrong from the moment Wayne Barnes’ whistle ended a blistering opening forty minutes of tantalising rugby from Les Blues in Paris. After a great exhalation of frustration and anger, sights were once again set on Jacques Brunel as a figure to be vilified and responsible for another catastrophic botched French side. That may not be unjustified, for Brunel was coach when his nation suffered quite possibly their most embarrassing defeat, at home to Fiji in November. Four centres and a winger at fullback another strange experiment gone wrong in London, the Courrensan native may not be the man to recover the fortunes of this withering nation, yet, he is categorically not the reason this side finds itself on the cusp of another great failure.
With its sweeping vineyards in Bordeaux, the soothing rivers of Metz, and the tranquil port of Toulon, France is the image of effortless brilliance. A description fitting of the days of Serge Betsen and Sébastien Chabal, remove the brilliance to paint a picture of todays offering. The clear lack of accountability running through this French side is striking. Whilst expensive foreign imports stunting the growth of the nations younger crop is a valid sentiment, it is not an excuse for the French internationals to produce the level of performance they currently are.
The attitude and mental will of this French group is the most questionable, and the consistent aspect of the decline of French rugby. It’s inherently engrained in the players’ mindset that if things aren’t going to plan, that they can survive simply by continuing to fail, pointing the finger at the coach, and the cycle renews. The first warning signs of this process commencing again were in the waking moments of defeat to Wales. Sebastien Vahaamahina claiming to not know he was captain represents a clear lack of communication amongst players, and again, accountability lacking. With the responsibility of a departing captain to inform his deputy of that role, if it wasn’t already know pre-match, the fact the players can’t amongst themselves communicate a simple instruction, or make a simple decision of who is captain when it is needed, shows a phenomenal lack of group responsibility.
Had France not surrendered fourteen simple points and claimed victory in Round One, would Vahaamahina been so forthcoming about the lack of leadership and confusion in the ranks? Doubtful at best.
Next follows the performances of Huget. The French wing has been capped by his country over fifty times, and is one of the more experienced of the group, despite this, the stand in full back keeps making mistakes. Whilst it may seem a tad unkind to brandish scorn at a man for making mistakes, it is more the recovery from those mistakes where the judgement lies, which tell the story of his, and more potently, the entire squads mentality. A well taken try was followed by a fumble to gift George North with the simplest score of his career. This was followed by a horrific forty minute spell at fullback, where Huget was completely missing in action and directly at fault for allowing Jonny May the full rule of the French backfield to notch a thirty minute hat trick. Deservedly hauled off at half time, whilst not naturally a full back, you’d expect a thirty one year old, half centurion international to have better positional awareness in a position he’s played before.
With other stalwarts Guirado, Picomoles and Morgan Parra seemingly offering nothing in terms of direction and leadership, it really is the appropriate time to question not Brunel, but the players themselves. Whilst New Zealanders, South Africans, Australians and Pacific Islanders continue to stack the Top Fourteen with diverse talent, all of Les Blues squad are regular starters for teams performing in or competing for a spot in the Champions Cup. Those overseas internationals may be stunting growth of younger French talent, but it’s hardly a twenty-three struggling with amateurs and semi professionals. Wales and Ireland have eight professional clubs between them, Scotland with only two, and that trio combined, who also have to contend with players moving overseas and selection constraints, still manage to compete at the top of world rugby with just ten professional clubs to pick three international sides. France boasts a fiercely competitive fourteen team division, it’s more and more apparent the will to improve, challenge and show the basic effort required to win test matches has to be top of the agenda of any French revolution, otherwise the revolving coaches door will continue to spin for time yet.
Get that right, and it may be worth taking the road less travelled. When looking at success stories, a path of least resistance, and inspiration, Italian rugby is not the first example that comes to mind, however, the French could stand to benefit from the structure and originality of the Federation of Italian rugby. Whilst Italian rugby is still behind France in terms of ability, it has surpassed the glass ceiling of whipping boys, as close defeats and exciting games usurp the distant memories of weekly thrashings. Most notably, Conor O’Shea has his adopted nation on an upward trend, Italian club rugby is performing at an all time high, and despite still sorely lacking the talent to challenge the likes of England, Ireland and Wales regularly, the gap is closing, the nation is improving, and Italian rugby is on a trend directly opposite to that of their French counterparts. With talk of Italian rugby considering the future of O’Shea, the job he has done is commendable; and just would France need. It would be foolish to let such an opportunity surpass them.
Whilst Jacques Brunel is unlikely the long term answer, he is in the position he is in until the end of the Six Nations at least, and whilst some or all of the players in his group may not be content with his leadership, it is down to them to offer the bare minimum of effort, enthusiasm and will to win, three elements that are a prerequisite to all levels of rugby, and three elements crucially missing from this French group so far.
If France are to develop into the elite group they are capable of becoming, before changes to structure in the federation, in the management offices and to who is taking the press conferences, the first shift has to come from the players, and whilst change is normally an arduous and prolonged road, France, like all others, are only ever eighty minutes from victory, and whilst it will take a vast shift in mentality, approach and structure to get France to where they could be, a win shows the players are interested, committed, and willing to improve, which is an enormous step in the right direction.