Different manager, same philosophy. French supporters could be forgiven for thinking that Marc Lievremont had morphed into a form that somewhat resembles Phillippe Saint-Andre. Optimism had grown amongst Les Blues after reaching the World Cup Final in November against the all odds. The buffoonery of Lievremont almost certainly held them back and the players seemed to turn against him in the tournament after one crazed rant too far.
Although Saint-Andre hasn’t turned to bizarre criticisms of his players’ personalities just yet, his team selections and the way France are playing is beginning to resemble his predecessors’ regime. His appointment had left the French in high spirits before the Six Nations began after successful spells with Sale and Toulon, but the country is already beginning to turn against the new man.
His team selection is the first sign of trouble in paradise, indeed the decision to select Julien Dupuy and Lionel Beauxis as his half back pairing on Sunday proved a disastrous choice. Neither player ever controlled the game as Saint-Andre had wanted and the Parisian crowd let the new coach know exactly what they thought of his decision to leave out Morgan Parra and Francois Trinh-Duc when they cheered their introductions to the field to the rafters. The Trinh-Duc substitution in itself was baffling; Beauxis had been brought into the side for his booming right foot, so why replace him needing three points to win the game with a man for whom kicking has never been a strong point. Had Trinh-Duc been brought on with France trailing further, it might have been more understandable, but the decision backfired on Saint-Andre as the player missed what proved to be the costly drop goal.
The chop-changing squad selection isn’t helping either. This became a feature of Lievremont’s time in charge, in fact he used an astonishing amount of players during his four year reign. Saint-Andre has started in similar fashion; he has already made five changes to the squad that was selected for the England game. Dupuy has been axed alongside Maxime Mermoz, Julien Malzieu and veteran second row Lionel Nallet, while Vincent Clerc is injured. Some of the new faces included suggest a change of thinking from Saint-Andre. Florian Fritz should have made his impact on the international scene a long time ago, while Florence Ouedraogo has been one of the standout players in the Top 14 this year for Montpellier. Despite the fact France reached the World Cup, the opportunity was still there for a clearout of some of the older faces who needed to give way to superior, younger models. There is some sensational young talent kicking around at domestic level that are dying to be given an chance at this level. Take Wesley Fofana for example. He has been far and awayFrance’s best player in this tournament, despite making his debut in the opening game. The young centre looks set for a career at the top level and there are others like him who deserve the opportunity to strut their stuff.
Compare France to Sunday’s opponents England. While paying a cautious note to the hype that has now attached itself to Stuart Lancaster’s side (they were after all, one drop goal from fourth position in the Championship), the bold approach to selection has paid off dramatically.England’s starting fifteen conceded vast amounts caps to their opponents, but yet they looked like the experienced side for the first half an hour in Paris. Lancaster has been rewarded for picking those who deserve a chance, while the tyro coach also needs recognition for sticking to his guns. He resisted the opportunity to recall Toby Flood or Charlie Hodgson to the Number 10 jersey, and whilst Owen Farrell was far from perfect, he showed a level of maturity that reminded everyone watching of another fly half who donned that jersey in Paris way back in 2000. We could sit here and discuss all of Lancaster’s selections, but one other name needs mentioning. Before the tournament started, most critics questioned the decision to leave an in-form Nick Easter out of the squad. Although Phil Dowson was originally selected in his place, it is Ben Morgan who has come to the fore and provided a dynamic ball-carrying game thatEnglandhasn’t seen since Lawrence Dallaglio rampaged around the pitch. Morgan created England’s second try out of nothing and it is this type of selection that is why Lancaster is suddenly the cream of the crop with Saint-Andre looking more like gone-off milk.
No-one would have ever believed they would say this before the tournament, but France need to take a leaf out of England’s book. Pick the young steeds, settle on a starting fifteen and go out playing fearless rugby. In truth,England’s first two games were rather dour to watch, France were dreadful against Ireland, dangerous in parts against Scotland and disinterested against Italy. Same old story then. It’s worrying to think what France would be like if they showed up week in, week out. People thought Saint-Andre would be the man to bring such consistency to the side, but it’s starting to look as if they might be wrong. Still, Stuart Lancaster might be out of a job in the summer…