Hugh Godwin: Saint-André spots the hole in Laporte's vision

Pivotal question of No 10 threatens World Cup party
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The Independent Online

When Bernard Laporte quits his job as the coach of France after the World Cup on home turf in October - and, for the avoidance of doubt, he has promised to depart rugby altogether - he is likely to go either garlanded with laurels from a grateful nation or bombarded by brickbats.

Either way there will be a vacancy which Sale's director of rugby, Philippe Saint-André, admits he would like to fill. "I am very relaxed about it, but if one day it comes to me, it will be because I deserve it," said Saint-André. For now he can only regard from afar his country's Six Nations prospects, knowing the outcome of this red-letter year for Les Bleus is up to Laporte.

"Always we say with the French team, 'We don't know'," Saint-André said, "but Bernard Laporte needs to put his starting World Cup team out during this Six Nations. They have a tour in June, but he will not have the players from the semi-final and final of the French league." And while Laporte cannot offer his kingdom for a fly-half, he must scour the republic for one, and, according to Saint-André, do it quickly.

"The big question right now is the spot of No 10," said Saint-André. "Frédéric Michalak is injured, and though he will be back for the World Cup we don't know if his best position is 10 or nine. Damien Traille is the only other fly-half to have played for France for about five years, he is struggling with his groin, and anyway he is a more natural centre. Everyone thinks it will be David Skrela of Stade Français, and I think David is a good, solid player and a good kicker, but to lead one of the best teams and try to win the World Cup in nine months is a big, big ask."

Skrela will be 28 in March, and his career has not matched that of his father Jean-Claude, the celebrated former flanker who is now the French Federation's technical director and manager of the training centre at Marcoussis. Benjamin Boyet of Bourgoin, also crocked of late, is the other fly-half in a squad of 40 players for the Six Nations, each of whom Laporte has promised at least one outing.

It sounds like a net cast widely, but there are only four uncapped players, and two of those - the prop Laurent Emmanuelli and hooker Benoît August - are 30. Only Anthony Floch and Romain Cabannes in the backs are notably youthful; Laporte has without doubt nailed his colours to a mast of experience.

"Almost every forward has 100 or 200 league games in the bag," Saint-André pointed out, though he cited the French football team last year "qualifying for the World Cup with the young guys, then they brought back the old school and nearly won it".

Saint-André was passing comment over a restorative coffee the morning after a convivial night before spent in a London hotel with luminaries such as Fabien Pelous, Gareth Jenkins, Frank Hadden and Pierre Berbizier. Could Laporte be accused of too much tinkering?

"To be fair, in most key positions, Laporte has been consistent," said Saint-André. "I think he is clever; he has 24 or 25 World Cup players sorted out, and the other 15 in this squad will fight for five places. So if you get the chance to see only one training session" - and here Saint-André succumbed to a fit of delighted laughter - "make it one of France's opposed sessions, 15 against 15. It will be tougher than any game in the Six Nations!

"I know the French culture. If you win the first two or three games, it can be positive and everybody gives 110 per cent. If you lose one or two, well, it can be completely the opposite. Everybody will be completely selfish to show what they can do."

Pelous, France's 34-year-old captain, stands tall on 110 caps (one short of Philippe Sella's French record) but shakily, too, on a dodgy ankle, and he looked to be on borrowed time when he was substituted during last November's utterly humbling 47-3 defeat by the All Blacks in Lyon. The Wasps hooker Raphaël Ibañez could skipper the opener away to Italy, and in any case there is quality second-row back-up in Jerôme Thion, Pascal Papé and Lionel Nallet.

"The defence is well organised and we wait to see about the gameplan," said Saint-André, who tipped Saracens' Thomas Castaignède (injury permitting) to be full-back. "Against New Zealand, the fly-half was Traille and he was too deep, never on the advantage line. You ask the 10 to create space and animate the team. This at the moment is where the French are weak."

And what about that post-World Cup vacancy? Saint-André finished off his coffee and smiled. "Everybody speaks about Fabien Galthié, Patrice Lagisquet, Guy Novès and me; four on the shortlist.

"In the end it will be the decision of Bernard Lapasset, the chairman, and if someone proposes the job to coach your own country it is exciting and a big privilege. At the moment I am focused and happy with Sale."

THE LAPORTE YEARS

2000

P9 W5 D0 L4. Six Nations: 3rd

2001

P11 W6 D0 L5. Six Nations: 5th

2002

P11 W7 D1 L3. Six Nations: 1st (Grand Slam)

2003

P18 W10 D0 L8. Six Nations: 3rd, World Cup: semi-finals

2004

P10 W8 D0 L2. Six Nations: 1st (Grand Slam)

2005

P12 W8 D1 L3: Six Nations: 2nd

2006

P10 W7 D0 L3. Six Nations: 1st

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