Rugby Union: Five Nations' Championship: Confidence the key for Villepreux

Experienced coach has France ready for double campaign, which starts in Dublin tomorrow
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The Independent Online
THE HOOKED nose, the stubble, the general air of a man for whom there is very little in life that could not be improved by the accompaniment of a glass of house red: the older he gets, the more Pierre Villepreux comes to resemble the late Serge Gainsbourg. And this is probably the last person over the age of puberty anywhere in the world who can still get away with putting his baseball cap on backwards.

At 54, the guru of French rugby is approaching the climactic test of his long and convoluted career. On Saturday at Lansdowne Road the team of which he is an assistant coach begins its two-stage journey through the Five Nations' Championship, which holds out promise of a third consecutive Grand Slam, and the World Cup, in which France may be considered the most likely of the European nations to go all the way.

This week, on the day before their departure for Dublin, Villepreux was to be found prowling the lumpy turf of the Stade du Vieux Moulin in Rambouillet, taking his players through their practice routines. Soon to be better known, thanks to its vast presidential castle, as the location of the Kosovo peace talks, Rambouillet is a quiet town 50 kilometres south of Paris and a few minutes away from the squad's training centre. Schoolchildren and local enthusiasts crowded the touchline as the chosen XV faced their reserves, with a group of army internationals making up the numbers.

On a cold, dry afternoon, the players ran through a sequence of 15-man handling moves. Close support was the message, along with swift transfer and unpredictable angles of running. Philippe Carbonneau and Thomas Castaignede, the half-backs, moved from breakdown to breakdown, flicking the ball out to the criss-crossing runners. From a distance, it looked like a demonstration of classic French improvisation.

"No," Villepreux said, in a tone of amiable reproof. "Improvise is not the right word, I think. Improvisation is something that happens when you have no sense of the situation that you're in. We want to give the players that sense, the ability to find a weakness in the defence of the other team. Improvisation, for me it's too much dangerous. If you improvise, one player will see one thing and another will see something else. It doesn't work."

Well, whatever it is, it looks as spontaneous and as pretty as it did in the days, between 1967 and 1972, when Villepreux was winning his 34 caps at full-back, even though the sense of tactical organisation is quite different. "It was much easier then," he protested. But the modern way seems every bit as faithful to the cherished legend of French flair.

"Yes, yes, yes," he responded. "Of course, the flair is one of the strengths of French rugby. We have to keep it and we have to give the players more confidence in this capacity to create quickly problems for their adversaries."

That emphasis on confidence invoked the occasional lack of mental strength that is another part of the French tradition, and which showed up before Christmas in a narrow defeat at the hands of Australia. Some felt this result placed the Five Nations achievements into a truer perspective, particularly with the World Cup approaching, and France hoping to improve on their semi-final place in 1995.

It had been an interesting game, Villepreux said. "First of all, because we learnt that we are not very far away from the level of the Southern Hemisphere. Secondly, because if we had been able to play in the second half with the same discipline as in the first half, we would have won. Discipline is vital at the highest level. It's more important than ever to respect the rules. Teams that don't understand that are penalising themselves. Against Australia, for a long time the French were not indisciplined. Then it changed. It's necessary to get serious on this question.

"The problem for the French team is to say, `OK, we are strong because we want to play one type of game, and it's our game.' Not always to say, `Oh, we have to adapt our game to the other side.' Play on your strengths first of all, and after that you adapt your game defensively to the other team. But for me this defeat was not really bad."

To most outsiders, Villepreux's involvement with the national squad has been long overdue. After doing brilliant work with Stade Toulousain, he was frozen out by the grands fromages of the French rugby federation during the long dictatorship of Albert Ferrasse. While Jacques Fouroux and Pierre Berbizier struggled to bring order to instinctive brilliance, Villepreux operated as a hired gun, spreading his wisdom around the rugby- playing world - even, briefly, to Jack Rowell's England squad.

Now he is part of a settled, harmonious group, working alongside two men whose international playing careers overlapped with his own: Jo Maso, his exact contemporary, who is the squad's manager, and Jean-Claude Skrela, the chief coach, who is five years younger. But it is Villepreux whose vision of rugby is embodied in the dynamic handling game with which the French have won their most recent honours.

Before the training session, Maso had announced the line-up for Lansdowne Road in an address which included several mentions of the team's need to approach the match with "humility". Was that just a handy word, or could Villepreux reconcile it with his own insistence on giving the players self-confidence?

"Yes," he said, "because when you are the first and you start a new competition, in your head it's necessary to be second, not first."

After two consecutive Grand Slams, the French coaches could be excused for telling themselves, OK, things are going well, let's just carry on. But this is a different sort of season, and requires a mental adjustment throughout the squad.

"The aim of this season is naturally the World Cup," Villepreux said. "So that gives us two aims. If we can win another Grand Slam, it will be a very interesting base from which to prepare for the World Cup. And if we don't win the Five Nations, I hope that we can play rugby which prepares us as well as possible for the big event."

Could the squad approach both competitions with the same strategy and style? "Yes, yes, yes, I'm sure of that, and I'm also sure that the World Cup will be open. The winning team will really give a big show for rugby. So we have to prepare for that in the Five Nations. But I am sure that this year's Five Nations will be very interesting because all the nations are trying to improve their rugby with the aim of the World Cup."

And which countries does he think capable of winning the big one? "I think that the French team have a little, little, little chance, which we'll try to take. Certainly Australia and South Africa, maybe not in that order, will be the best. But also New Zealand. New Zealand have lost at a good moment, and it's important to lose at a good moment. And after that the European teams... the Welsh, France, England, and why not the Irish, because they have the quarter-final in Dublin, so all is possible. All is possible."

Except, evidently, for the Scots, who were gently dismissed in Villepreux's assessment of France's opponents in the Five Nations. "They're having to change their mentality and consider rugby differently. I think the Welsh team have improved a lot in their attacking rugby. It's the aim of their coach, it seems to me, to give his team the mental approach of the Southern Hemisphere." And England? "It's difficult to give an impression of what they want, exactly. They have some good players, so it's basically a good team."

The French had spent the morning at Chateau Ricard, their training centre, where the backs had been shut away with Villepreux in a brainstorming session. The big news was that Emile Ntamack had been pronounced fit to resume his Five Nations career by moving from the wing to full-back, a switch prefigured by Ntamack's appearance in the No 15 jersey for an hour of the match between a French selection and Italy in Genoa the previous Saturday. But the injury-prone Toulouse player, who missed an entire season through a groin injury, had suffered a knock against the Italians and spent the hour before lunch on the treatment table.

"He played a very nice game against Italy," Villepreux said, a few feet away from where Ntamack lay with electrodes attached to his left knee. "It's important for him to return to the team and we will try to use his potential. I think he's become stronger, because he's worked a lot physically, and he's got a lot of confidence. If he's able to play at his best level, certainly he'll be a big weapon for France."

Bearing tomorrow's rendezvous in mind, he acknowledged the relevance of Ulster's European Cup victory, achieved by the Irish club with defeats of three top French sides in a row. "Evidently it's a problem for French rugby, and so we want to see on Saturday if it's really like that or not. The Irish have made a lot of progress. It hasn't made us change our preparation, but we have seen a lot of Irish rugby and we have some ideas to try to beat them. The key will be the capacity of the French team to defend well against the Irish forwards. If we have this capacity, I am sure we have the key to the game."