The age of the traditional French headbanger is officially dead. Where once they stormed out of the tunnel replete with sweat, blood (literally) and tears; now they saunter – the epitome of cool, detached assuredness.
One or two of them were relaxed enough to slip the odd wink to an acquaintance as they trotted out to dismiss the Irish from their presence.
A more competitive French championship, with fewer but more intense games, is already having an effect with more and more of the international players being found at one of the three big city clubs of Stade Français, Toulouse and Montferrand.
It is a frightening, yet exhilarating thought – the country with the most wondrous array of playing talent in the world is finally getting its professional act together.
There is no point in being too hard on Ireland or remarking too loudly that away from the Emerald Isle they are no more than ordinary. Two absolute hammerings at Twickenham and the Stade de France have shown up their limitations. They are not on the brink of breaking through to challenge the world powers – but neither should they be bracketed with the likes of Wales, Scotland and Italy.
But without parity, or anything approaching it, at the set piece, the Irish were taken apart. The scrummage still holds a special place in the hearts of all French rugby men and the display of Crenca and De Villiers yesterday will have delighted them all. It was a painful exit for Clohessy in his final game at international level, but he was not alone in being dominated by his opposite number. The level of scrummaging in the French Championship is higher than in any other competition in Europe – and it shows. At the line-out there was too little movement from the Irish jumpers, which left Wood no margin for error. Rarely did we see a green jersey soaring skywards without a blue one in close attendance. To add insult to injury, the French even dominated most of the restarts. With little or no ball Humphreys and O'Driscoll had no way of putting any shape on the game. It quickly became a case of how many tackles the Celts would miss. As it happens, they fell off far too many in the first half hour and the game was gone. The likes of Rougerie, Bory and Traille are very powerful men who have to be put down early – when they are not the outcome is inevitable.
For the first time in living memory the Six Nations now contains two world-class teams at the same time. Both England and France are the real deal – able to compete at the very highest level with the Southern Hemisphere giants. It is a moot point as to which of them is more likely to pose the greater threat at the World Cup in 2003. France have made enormous progress in the last 12 months and probably have more potential for improvement than England; although at times Clive Woodward's men touch heights which no other side in the world can get near.
The downside of having two such fine sides is that it throws the weaknesses of the other nations into sharp relief. Nowadays we see very few close games in either London or Paris. At home the others may put together a challenge, but on their own patch these two are a class apart and will remain so for a good few years.
In many ways we should not find this surprising. The player numbers in England and France are so much bigger than the other countries in Europe that they should always dominate. Ireland are probably punching above their weight while Scotland and Italy do remarkably well to compete considering how few people play the game in those nations. The real under-achievers are Wales.
European rugby desperately needs the principality to sort itself out in a rugby sense. It is the national game, central to the whole culture and a strong Wales would enhance the Six Nations tournament immeasurably.
Unfortunately, there are few signs that the vested interests in the Welsh game are prepared, or even able, to implement the coherent and well-structured programme of change that is needed. Even with radical change, it is hard to see another golden era emerging within the next five years. Indeed, they will do well to stop the Big Two stretching further ahead as their domestic programmes will undoubtedly get stronger.Reuse content