French Farce

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…

Bring in the Cavalry

So England took the decision to appoint an interim coaching team for the time being. Despite waiting a couple of months after the debacle of the World Cup, the hapless RFU still couldn’t make an official appointment to give the side the settling influence it needed. If they are waiting for Nick Mallett or Wayne Smith who have both said they are interested in the job (but not until the summer) then why don’t they just announce this and let them put their own plans in place? Instead, they’ve thrown together a patchwork coaching team who apparently have a chance to ‘make the position their own.’

The men charged with turning Englands fortunes around

The men charged with attempting to defend England’s Six Nations crown are Stuart Lancaster, Graham Rowntree and Andy Farrell. Rowntree was a sure bet for any setup and indeed any future one having been the only member of Martin Johnson’s regime to come out unscathed. Giving him a chance to work closely with England’s forwards can only be a good thing, indeed the scrum was one of the only positives to come out of the tournament. Andy Farrell is a different case. One of Rugby League’s greatest sons joined the game late on, featuring just 8 times for England after his disappointing big money move to Saracens. He is proving his worth in the coaching department though, providing Mark McCall with assistance in leading Sarries to their first Premiership title last year. Reluctant at first due to his club commitments, Saracens rather pushed him into the role, believing it to be good experience for him. England supporters should be pleased with the appointment of these two assistants, both are young and fresh with new ideas, and more importantly, respected by those they are in charge of. Farrell has played down fears that his son Owen will be fast-tracked into the side, but many in England believe he could well be in contention anyway. Never mind temporary appointments, these two could well be involved with the Red Rose for years to come.

Stuart Lancaster is a different kettle of fish. The former Leeds PE teacher has been thrust into the spotlight following his appointment as interim head coach. Not many know too much about him, but those that do will tell you what an excellent job he has done with the England Saxons. Everyone who knows him also mentions what a personable bloke he is, capable of managing all types of people (a skill he’ll definitely with this bunch of over-inflated egos.) Lancaster has been making all the right noises as well, vowing to change the culture within the England side that ruined the World Cup campaign, a statement that will no doubt pacify the people that Will Carling once described as ’57 old farts.’ He has also provided something for fans to savour as well, stating “We want to look at new players and give them a chance in the Six Nations, no doubt about it.” This opens the door to not only the youngsters that Stuart knows so well from his Saxon days, but players out in the wilderness that Johnson had cast aside, most notably Danny Cipriani. It has been made clear this is purely a transitional period for the England side and that the new coaching line-up is purely a temporary solution. But Lancaster will get the feeling that success in the Six Nations could put him well in the frame for the permanent position.

It’s not been smiles and champagne for everyone though. Numerous critics have said their piece on this new look England setup with Stuart Barnes predictably leading the attack. The obvious area of weakness lies in the experience of the new coach, the only club job Lancaster has held before was at Leeds. Despite achieving promotion during his first season in charge there, the side went straight back down the year after, before Lancaster ended his stewardship to join the RFU. His CV is therefore not as detailed as one would like and you have to wonder whether the new boss can make the right call under the extreme pressures of international rugby. Many have suggested more distinguished names could have held the fort for the time being, with John Kirwan available following a successful stint in Japan. Barnes is also concerned with the authority that Lancaster will hold, suggesting that when “working for the RFU at Twickenham, there is a degree of apparatchik to the appointment. I wonder about his independence.” The decision has been made however and the RFU are not obliged to appoint Stuart full-time if all goes wrong.

His first squad will be announced in January, a selection that will be awaited with baited breath. Many feel Johnson should have unleashed the obviously talented youngsters England have earlier and Lancaster could now be the man to do that in preparation for the 2015 World Cup on home soil. A new captain will be top of his agenda, with no obvious candidate leaping out of the hat. One thing is certain, this temporary appointment has removed any pressure from the new England coaches, since they know their tenure will probably be ended by the summer anyway. This will hopefully lead to a recurrence of the exuberant, free-spirited England side that destroyed Australia at Twickenham almost a year ago and not that drab and limited one that appeared in the World Cup, hopefully leading to exciting times ahead for England’s new look setup.

England Team for the Six Nations:

15. Ben Foden

14. Chris Ashton

13. Manu Tuilagi

12. Owen Farrell

11. Charlie Sharples

10. Toby Flood

9. Ben Youngs

8. Tom Croft (Captain)

7. Tom Wood

6. Chris Robshaw

5. Tom Palmer

4. Courtney Lawes

3. Dan Cole

2. Dylan Hartley

1. Andrew Sheridan

16. Alex Corbisiero

17. Joe Gray

18. James Gaskell

19. Luke Narroway

20. Danny Care

21. Danny Cipriani

22. Delon Armitage