By the time England and France come together in the summer of 2003 to play home and away warm-up matches before the World Cup, it may be only the white and blue jerseys that tell the old rivals apart. Bernard Laporte, the French coach, has drawn on the same influences as Clive Woodward in revamping every detail of the preparation of his side, and it was more than just the two teams' results in the November Tests which bore striking similarities.
Like England, France beat South Africa and Australia, before completing their programme with a national-record 77 points against Fiji. Satisfactory by anyone's standards; all the more so because the French defeated the Springboks 20-10 in Paris with seven new caps, including a back division drawn almost straight from the crèche.
France's reputation as red- wine-swilling, cigarette-smoking dilettantes – acknow-ledged by Laporte as recently as the 48-19 defeat by England at Twickenham last April – has been under attack by the former Stade Français coach since he took over after the 1999 World Cup. By next summer France will have a £20m purpose-built national rugby centre at Linas-Marcoussis, south-west of Paris, featuring a five-star hotel and indoor and outdoor pitches.
They will need the space to get the coaches in. A dozen attend to the squad's preparation, including the Test referee Joel Dumé, with a psychologist and a dietician among several yet to be added. After many years of training at Château Ricard, this will be more like Château Evian.
The role of the specialist coach sprang from sports like American football and rugby league, with Australia's Rod Macqueen generally credited as the man who introduced it to international rugby. Woodward followed Macqueen, and Laporte and South Africa's Harry Viljoen are not far behind. Laporte wants 40 players fit and ready for World Cup duty in two years' time.
David Ellis, an Englishman with a rugby league background, has been France's defence coach for 18 months. "Laporte made the brave and correct decision to look forward to the next World Cup," said Ellis, who also assists Gloucester in the Zurich Premiership. "At first there were political and financial limitations, but slowly he's brought the specialist coaches in. My job has been getting the defensive structure right, and the players now feel confident with that. Laporte's been able to evolve his attacking ploys, and we were disappointed we didn't beat Australia by 30 points rather than just the one."
The French clubs, looking to raise their standards after four years without winning the Heineken Cup, are bucking their ideas up too. "International success begins with the clubs," said Laporte. "The players spend 80 per cent of their time with their club and 20 with France. If for 80 per cent of their time, players do not perform well with their clubs, it is difficult to imagine them performing during the remaining 20."
The Toulouse half-back, Frédéric Michalak, and the Montferrand wing Aurélien Rougerie are part of a new breed who, like their young English counterparts, know nothing other than professionalism.
"Fiji was a classic 'trap' match for France," said Pieter de Villiers, the Stade Français prop who played in each of the autumn wins. "At one time, we would have scored a few points then lost interest. But there has been a change in attitude. Bernard has worked hard on two things – defence and discipline. We're giving away fewer penalties and we're happy about that."
Laporte, again following the Woodward way, is pushing for more squad get-togethers on the Monday of each week, and more visits by his assistants to the top clubs. Later this month a seminar in Toulouse will bring together the clubs' fitness coaches for consultation with the national co-ordinator.
With England and Ireland visiting Paris in the next Six Nations' Championship, the extent of development will be up for scrutiny. "The most dangerous thing is to get too excited," said De Villiers. "We messed up in attack against Australia, and against a team in top shape like England, we'll have to take those chances."
For too long, French rugby was riven between supporters of the rival coaching philosophies of Jacques Fouroux, Pierre Berbizier and Pierre Villepreux. Laporte's greatest success may prove to have been getting everyone to speak with one voice. All together now: "Allons enfants de la Patrie..."Reuse content