If Stuart Lancaster is serious about proving himself willing to change a winning England team – he is expected to drop the centre Billy Twelvetrees, the hooker Tom Youngs and the flanker James Haskell from the side that prevailed over Ireland last time out and replace them with Manu Tuilagi, Dylan Hartley and Courtney Lawes for this weekend's meeting with France – the head coach can expect an unusually generous helping of criticism if things go wobbly on him. Steaming hot platefuls of the stuff, in fact.
But whatever dramas unfold on the old Twickenham cabbage patch on Saturday evening, Lancaster's problems will pale into insignificance when set against those with which his opposite number, Philippe Saint-André, is currently lumbered. Indeed, the whole mad, bad, dangerous and eternally transfixing edifice of French rugby is facing serious issues – and not just because the venerable English lock Simon Shaw, now playing for Toulon, thinks he is fitter at 39 than many Top 14 forwards half his age.
Conditioning has been a running theme this season – or, in the case of the French, a walking theme. Back in the autumn, Lancaster himself was heard to suggest that when it comes to the physicals, the English club game holds the whip hand over its counterpart across the water. Perhaps it is down to diet. How many horseburgers must a back-rower consume before he finds that the last 20 minutes of a match is a quarter too far? The way things are going in our supermarkets, we will not be waiting long for an answer.
Even worse from Saint-André's perspective is the numbers game. There are around 250 foreign players on the rosters of the top-flight teams in France – approximately double the number found on the books of the 12 English Premiership sides. Using the most recently published senior squad lists, there are almost 50 imports from South Africa alone. Only six of the 14 elite clubs can boast a home-grown contingent of 60 per cent or higher and of those, only Toulouse and Grenoble occupy positions in the top half of the table. Toulon, the leaders (and, it might pertinently be mentioned, Saint-André's former charges), struggle to scrape over the 50 per cent mark.
The positional breakdown is even scarier. Saint-André has "true-bleu" scrum-halves coming out of his ears: almost 87 per cent of No 9s on the squad lists are French and at 10 of the 14 clubs, there is no imported half-back in sight – a resounding confirmation of the great Gallic tradition in the role, which is performed differently in the land of Fouroux and Berbizier than anywhere else in the world.
But when it comes to the centre positions, where the French tradition is equally glorious, the story is very different. Fewer than 50 per cent of the midfielders playing elite club rugby hail from the country. Grenoble, promoted at the end of last season, have seven centres on their books: they include three South Africans, two New Zealanders and a Fijian. This in the country that gave us Jo Maso and the Boniface brothers, Didier Codorniou and Philippe Sella.
Wing stocks are also low; so too are second-row supplies. Even the props are dwindling in number, a mere 56 per cent of the current crop are blessed with French nationality. "We used to have a Basque prop, a guy from Toulon on the other side, perhaps a hooker from Clermont," Saint-André said this week. "Now, all the tight-head props are from Georgia or Romania or Tonga. We have to be aware of our identity." You can see his point.
As Lancaster noted a few days ago, the recently renegotiated player access deal between the Rugby Football and the Premiership clubs, underpinned by an English Qualified Player scheme that offers a handsome financial incentives to teams who include sufficient numbers of home-produced players in their match-day squad, is at the heart of the current spike in fortunes. There is nothing remotely comparable on the far side of the Channel.
But Lancaster and company cannot afford a moment's smugness. What happens if the Premiership's wealthy free-market fundamentalists – Bath, Leicester and Saracens among them – succeed in driving up the salary cap, or even abolishing it? If and when those clubs are permitted to spend what they like, how they like, they will not do their shopping in the English shires. They will splash their cash around the southern hemisphere, just as Toulon do. As one Premiership coach said this week: "For most of us, £300,000 through the EQP scheme is pure lifeblood. To them, it's chicken feed. They'd spend that on a party."
When Saint-André arrives at Twickenham this weekend, he will have every reason to feel envious. But in rugby, the politics is always with us. If things go wrong on Planet Premiership, who is to say the cosy red-rose galaxy will not disappear into a black hole?
Parisse banned for insulting french referee
Italy's captain Sergio Parisse has been suspended for the rest of the current Six Nations Championship campaign after he was sent off for insulting a referee while playing for Stade Français during a French Top 14 club match against Bordeaux-Begles. The No 8 denied the charge, but the French league (LNR) has handed him a 40-day ban of which 10 days were suspended. Parisse will be allowed to play again on 18 March.
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