French class in flexibility

Paul Trow analyses the Gallic propensity for wholesale change
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The Independent Online
IMAGINE the outcry if Jack Rowell had done it. England's manager came in for enough stick after dropping Tim Rodber and Martin Bayfield for last weekend's Calcutta Cup match, but just think how his critics would have reacted if he had made eight changes to the side which struggled to beat Wales a month ago.

In recent years, England have shied away from responding so drastically to a poor performance. Nor, in fairness, do their supporters generally advocate it.

But the French, past masters of the selectorial guillotine, are not so squeamish. After their 19-14 defeat by Scotland, a disappointing result for them but by no means a disgrace, not only did their coach Jean-Claude Skrela axe four of his players but he unceremoniously moved four more into different positions. The fly-half and inside centre swapped roles, the tight-head prop switched to the loose-head and one of the world's leading back-row forwards found himself catapulted into the second row.

For most countries, such surgery would have been several cuts too many, resulting in a painful death. Yet the most extraordinary aspect of such personnel reshuffles in France - they have done this sort of thing many times before, remember - is that it nearly always works.

Against Ireland, their opponents a fortnight later, the French charged to a record 45-10 victory - not bad for a team which was virtually unrecognisable in comparison with the one which had taken the field at Murrayfield.

"That was an out-and-out demolition job on a strong Irish pack," the former England coach Roger Uttley said. "Ireland's forwards showed how good they can be a fortnight later when they thrashed Wales, but in Paris they were utterly demoralised."

Uttley, who displayed rare flexibility for an England forward by being capped at lock, flanker and No 8, believes there is an important lesson to be learnt from France's tendency to move their players around within the team. "I've never been able to understand why people complain when they are played out of their so-called position," he said. "I was just pleased to be good enough to be in the side, and I was happy to play wherever the selectors wanted me to.

"The French obviously like to identify their best 15 players, and then try to devise a team format so they can fit them all in. It boils down to the romantic view they have of the game. They like to play the ball wide, fling it about and go on flashing runs. Positions are not so important for them."

However, Franck Mesnel, who won 53 caps between 1986 and 1995, warns that the cult of the individual can be taken too far in French rugby. "We all love to watch brilliance," he said. "But you also need to subordinate yourself to the interests of the team. Sometimes there is a problem with a lack of team spirit."

A few years ago, Mesnel himself was switched from his preferred position, fly-half, in the interests of the team. "Jacques Fouroux, who was the coach at the time, wanted to keep me in the team so I was moved to centre. It meant we had two playmakers, which made us less predictable. There is a close link between fly-half and centre in French rugby, which is why it was so easy for Thomas Castaignede to take over at No 10."

Don Rutherford, the Rugby Football Union's technical director, feels the mild French winters might play a role in helping to develop versatility. "Most of their players live in the south of France and train with the ball in their hands all year round. Here, there are long periods when our players can only work on set-pieces or their fitness." Mesnel, though, points out that New Zealand's weather is not dissimilar to Britain's and yet their players don't exactly lack skill.

In the end, the assessment of Nigel Walker, the Wales wing and former Olympic hurdler whoknows a thing or two about sporting versatility, is probably nearest the mark. "They are the most naturally gifted players in world rugby and the reason they switch positions so much is because it comes so easily to them."

Perhaps the best hope for his countrymen on Saturday is for a few more French players to turn out in their normal positions.