France begin to feel pinch with arrival of foreign legions
Sunday 13 February 2011
As the queue of players grasping at the mega-Euros on offer in France's Top 14 Championship grows ever longer, so Marc Lièvremont, the head coach of
Les Blues, is becoming more exasperated. "I am delighted that players like Jonny Wilkinson are playing in France but as a selector it is a problem," he said. "You go to a league match and the teams you are watching have so many foreign players."
The trickle of foreigners in former flanker Lièvremont's playing days – he was a member of the Grand Slam side in 1998 and made it a double as coach when he landed the same prize last year – has become a torrent. Wilkinson's Toulon recently added Wales's Gavin Henson to their roster and Kingsley Jones, the Welshman who has been linked with a coaching job at the club, predicts wealthier French sides will soon run the equivalent of two playing squads totalling up to 50 players.
Two blue-chip Australians, Matt Giteau and Rocky Elsom, are reported to be joining Toulon after the World Cup this autumn, while the gravy trains have whisked a horde of Englishmen across the Channel – there is a 17-strong English contingent in the Top 14: Iain Balshaw, Magnus Lund, Ayoola Erinle (all Biarritz), Wilkinson, Paul Sackey, Kris Chesney, Joe El Abd, Dean Schofield, Tom May (all Toulon), Perry Freshwater (Perpignan), James Haskell, Tom Palmer, Ollie Phillips (all Stade Français), Jamie Noon, Shaun Perry (both Brive), Dan Scarbrough (Racing Métro) and Andrew Springgay (Agen).
France, like England, have a long way to go before they run out of players, and recent results – a 34-21 defeat of Scotland last weekend set them up for today's trip to meet Ireland in Dublin – suggest they are coping. But the pinch point is the rising foreign quota in specialist positions such as fly-half and tighthead prop.
Lièvremont said: "We would want to see a compromise in our league. We want a top-quality championship and that is what it is thanks to these foreign players coming over. But at the same time we have the difficulty of integrating young French players into the club teams. We are at a stage where 50 per cent of the players playing in the top clubs are foreigners."
Ireland's captain, Brian O'Driscoll, spurned Biarritz's advances in 2008 to stick with Leinster and he achieved his aim of winning the Heineken Cup with his home province. Almost all the best Irishmen have stayed put but the problem today is that seven of them are injured.
No 8 Jamie Heaslip returns after missing the 13-11 win in Italy. France have made a habit of counter-attacking the Irish to death, and that was what they did to the Scots in Paris. "We're going out with the mindset that we want to stretch France," said full-back Luke Fitzgerald. His Irish side must ensure they don't cough the ball up in the process.
Ireland v France is on BBC2 from 2.30pm today
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