Rugby Union: Skrela's exit shocks France

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The Independent Online
A LONG and generally successful World Cup campaign may be fun while it lasts, but it plays merry hell with your career. Jean-Claude Skrela, the great French flanker of the 1970s who guided the Tricolores to their second global final in four attempts less than a fortnight ago, yesterday resigned as national coach without a word of explanation. He now joins John Hart, the All Black coach he so dramatically out-thought in that classic semi-final at Twickenham, in search of gainful rugby employment after a four-year stint in the hot seat.

Skrela, who succeeded Pierre Berbizier in 1995, was planning to hold a press conference in Colomiers, one of the more fanatical rugby districts of Toulouse, this morning to shed some light on his unexpected decision, which leaves the French without a management structure worthy of the name. With Pierre Villepreux, a precious ally of Skrela's, loosening his ties with Les Bleus by taking on a demanding role as the French Rugby Federation's technical director, it is difficult to see how the third member of the back-room triumvirate, Jo Maso, can avoid joining the exodus.

The FFR may appoint Skrela's successor before the week is out, which suggests they already have someone in mind. Bernard Laporte, the coach behind the sudden rise of Stade Francais as a major force in European club rugby, is among the favourites, as is Guy Noves of Toulouse. Interestingly, three outstanding former Test performers have been moving up the coaching ladder: Patrice Lagisquet and Laurent Rodriguez with Biarritz and Jean- Michel Aguirre with Pau.

Last season's Five Nations calamity, which saw France collect a wooden spoon, left Skrela under enormous pressure from the unforgiving Tricolore public and a 50-point defeat in New Zealand during the summer hardly helped the situation. There were reports of in-fighting in the French camp - Fabien Galthie, the outstanding Colomiers scrum-half, was dropped from the original World Cup squad after arguments with the coaching staff, only to be reinstated later - and Raphael Ibanez, Skrela's hand-picked captain, was openly criticised by the FFR hierarchy including the president, Bernard Lapasset.

But France slowly got their World Cup act together, played brilliantly against Argentina and New Zealand to reach the final and sent Skrela's stock soaring to its highest point since his back-to-back Grand Slam triumphs of 1997-98. He has come a long way down in the space of 11 days.