The French players and management do not like the question. In fact, they positively loathe it. In the eyes of these Tricolores, who have won seven consecutive matches and now stand on the brink of the first Grand Slam in the history of the Six Nations, the question is like an outrageously risky pass five metres from their own line – a dangerous tempting of fate. And yet it has to be asked: just how good is this French side?
There is not much point in quizzing Bernard Laporte. So far as the manager is concerned, his players should not be judged this early on in their development. The crux, he says, will come in 18 months at the World Cup. Laporte may be right, but he can at least take a minute or two to reflect on what he has achieved since replacing Jean-Claude Skrela in Dec-ember 1999. Out went the troublemakers and lazy players; in came the young, professional, and determined generation. Out, too, went France's trademark cavalier approach and over-reliance on flair; in came an Englishman (David Ellis) to tighten up the defence and bring a specific game-plan for every match. It says everything that, on the evening of the unconvincing 37-33 victory against Wales last month, Laporte made his players stay up until midnight to study England's destruction of Ireland that same day.
Laporte's determination to change the French psyche was a considerable gamble. But it has paid off. So much so, in fact, that even the former greats are now happy to embrace the new look. Philippe Sella was at the centre of many a good French side during his 13-year international career. Few, he believes, had the potential of the current crop. "The thing I enjoy most about this team," he says, "is the fact that you want to like them. You feel an immediate empathy towards them because of the way they behave. Someone like Damien Traille [the explosive Pau centre] typifies France at the moment. He is ambitious in attack and conscious in defence. What I love is that this bunch get results but do not take themselves too seriously."
Sella, who hung up his boots after spending two years with Saracens in the late Nineties, has particularly fond memories of the Grand Slam-winning team of 1987, which included the likes of Serge Blanco, Pierre Berbizier and Franck Mesnel. He also singles out the group, led by Philippe Saint-André, Abdel Benazzi and Jean-Luc Sadourny, who toured New Zealand in 1994 and scored the memorable "try from the end of the world".
"The thing about those two periods of French rugby is that they were happy times," says the 40-year-old, who now shares his time between his communications business and commentary for French TV. "A good atmosphere is so important to the potential success of a team, and I think this squad is like a big family. As a player, this sense of togetherness helps you believe you can achieve things. It instils confidence in and around the camp. I have not felt so optimistic about France for nearly a decade."
It is, indeed, difficult to ignore a team that have beaten the best from the southern and northern hemisphere since November. And yet the French coach continues to reject any talk of triumph. "To be perfectly honest," Laporte says ahead of the Six Nations decider against Ireland on Saturday, "I could not care less whether or not we win the Grand Slam. I am not saying that it would not be a nice thing to have, but for me, the most important aspect is the group's progression from a tactical and technical point of view. What encourages me is to see the pleasure these players derive from each other, as team-mates and friends."
While Clive Woodward, the England manager, often stands accused of blowing England's trumpet too much, his French counterpart is the master of the understatement. Nicknamed Keyser, because he reminds his players of the quiet mastermind, Keyser Sozé, in the film The Usual Suspects, Laporte does everything pianissimo. "Before we even talk of Grand Slams," he says, "I would like us to first start thinking about how we can overcome Ireland. We have not beaten them for three years, their provinces are forever winning against our clubs, their backs are lightning quick, and they fear no one. Believe me, there is still plenty to do, particularly if we want to win a World Cup."
France may be turning the corner, but Laporte simply refuses to make the same mistakes as his predecessors. He is only too aware that his team are still capable of underperforming, as they proved against Italy and Wales in the first two matches of the tournament. Celebrations, he insists, will be kept on hold until tournaments are won. "Bernard is right," Sella explains. "The team have enormous potential, but the manager knows that they have developed very quickly. So far, they have learned to adapt to the style of the top teams, but they have not yet learned to impose themselves against the lesser sides. It's a question of maturity, and you cannot expect this young side to know when to sit back or when to attack. But it will come, and once they can marry the two, I have no doubt they will be the team to beat."
Laporte and his troops can argue until they are red, white and blue in the face, the simple fact is that France are a lot closer to success than they would like us to believe.Reuse content