Rugby Union: Why French knives stayed sheathed

An eerie silence has greeted two surprising defeats. Alex Hayes reports
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SETBACKS IN French rugby are not new. During the last five years alone France have alternated the sublime with the atrocious. In 1994 they lost to Canada before defeating the All Blacks twice in New Zealand. And last year the double Grand Slam-winning team of 1997-98 surrendered to Italy. Those were mere blips, though, compared with recent months when the roller-coaster which is meant to carry Les Tricolores to greatness has taken a distinctly vertical plunge.

Having lost three of their last four Tests (and it could easily have been all four, had Ireland's David Humphreys not left his kicking boots at home), the French assault on the world's top prize has been rudely halted. Though these recurring deficiencies have left many in the rest of the world scratching their heads - not least because the early days of Jean-Claude Skrela's reign as coach promised and delivered so much - there seems remarkably little concern across the Channel.

The French press have delivered a unanimous "not guilty" verdict and the team's management have remained equally upbeat. Jo Maso, a member of France's set-up, acknowledges his team made too many basic handling errors and gave the ball away too often at Twickenham last Saturday. "Over the course of the match the ball was in play for 30 minutes, but we had it for no more than 10. Under those circumstances, how could we possibly make serious in-roads into the English camp?"

Maso, however, dismisses talk of a crisis. "I can remember the French team, during the Five Nations tournament of 1995, conceding four tries at Twickenham, and losing to Scotland at the Parc des Princes. But this didn't stop us building foundations and coming third in the World Cup."

The daily sports paper L'Equipe was similarly unconcerned. Instead, they blamed England for a poor match. "Rose Morose" read their headline on Monday, before the article raised some bizarre questions. "So, why this malaise, this morosity? What was tactically and technically wrong with the English?" it asked. "Answer: the game plan that had allowed them to destroy the Irish and which they thought was infallible."

A slightly odd view, considering how dominant England were. Statistics certainly prove that. Thomas Castaignede tackled 50 per cent more than his opposite number, Mike Catt; a sure sign that he spent far too much time defending. Additionally Matt Dawson, the English scrum-half during the second half, was in possession of the ball 35 times, whereas his counterpart, Philippe Carbonneau, had 10 fewer opportunities to influence the game.

So why is there such calm and serenity throughout La Belle France? Pierre Berbizier, the former international scrum-half and coach of Les Tricolores before the present regime took over, believes he has the answer: "For the first time ever, the management is very good at communicating. In fact, its whole strategy is based around communication," he said.

Thanks to their strong ties with France Television (the French BBC), and Midi-Olympic (the written voice of French rugby), Skrela and his entourage are indeed in an incredibly powerful position. "The media and the public have been clamouring for this style of open rugby - advocated by Pierre Villepreux and Maso for the last 15 years - so they are determined to give it a real chance." Irrespective of results? "Well... the truth is slowly emerging," said Berbizier. "People are maybe beginning to realise that the theory cannot work in practice."

Results on the pitch, including the defeat to England, appear to back up Berbizier's views. "The best team won," he said. "It was a difficult match, and a disappointing result. But, to be honest, the French performance was not unexpected. It only served to highlight the obvious weaknesses which we have been showing for a while.

"Rugby is, above all else, a physical game. And, as long as we prepare our players for an open and running game, rather than give them the necessary combative training, we risk losing out," said the man who led France to third in the 1995 World Cup. "We lack penetration in the centre and from the back of the scrum. And our front three are often outplayed. With this in mind, the performance wasn't a surprise."

As for the theory, put forward by L'Equipe, that the match simply highlighted the deficiencies of northern hemisphere rugby, Berbizier disagrees. "The Scotland-Ireland game was an excellent one, and Wales have a good team now. These sides are improving all the time, so you could hardly say that our [northern hemisphere] rugby is stagnant."

And he refutes the argument that the Murrayfield match was more open because the Celtic nations are not on the same level as France and England. "We didn't dominate the Irish, and our performance against Wales only emphasised how much the gap has closed," he said.

But Berbizier apart, the French seem content. None more so than Maso, who said: "I often speak to Aime Jacquet [the ex-French football manager]. He told me: `Don't worry, even if you lose a few matches.' During Le Tournoi [the pre-France 98 tournament], France were poor against England and Brazil. He knew, though, that he had a quality team with a lot of potential. For us, it's the same."

Jacquet and his team, who never enjoyed the support of the press or the nation, still succeeded in lifting the World Cup. It would be ironic if Skrela, whose men are blessed with both, fell well short come the autumn.