France could be heading for a first wooden spoon in the Championship since the Five Nations became Six in 2000, and only their fourth since the Second World War – a record easily better than the other competing countries. Yet in the aftermath of last weekend's ugly and boneheaded performance in the loss to Wales – and with the boos of the Stade de France still in his ears – Philippe Saint-André stared down a room of journalists without hearing a single "Off with his head!" The message in the land of the guillotine is: "Wait and see".
Pierre Camou, the chairman of the French Rugby Federation, stuck by the previous head coach, Marc Lièvremont, from his appointment in December 2007 through to the World Cup of 2011, even while Lièvremont was baffling rugby watchers with his revolving-door approach to selection. And guess what? France did better than any European nation at that World Cup, losing the final by a point to the hosts, New Zealand.
Lièvremont set out in the Six Nations with finishes of third in 2008 and 2009. Camou, the 68-year-old Basque administrator promoted from vice-chairman in December 2008, was patient and France won the Grand Slam in 2010 and were second in 2011. Saint-André took over France in January 2012 as more of a manager than the tracksuited Lièvremont, and presided over a fourth-place finish last year. He has a contract up to the 2015 World Cup and there is no indication Camou will revisit it. Yet with trips to Twickenham and Dublin next, followed by Scotland in Paris on the Six Nations' final day, results may be worse than anything under Lièvremont. Bottom place may be decided on points difference, and the Scots have an advantage from last week's thumping of Italy, to whom France lost ignominiously in Rome a fortnight ago.
Questions are being asked. Denis Charvet, still carrying himself at 50 with the lithe physique of the centre who dazzled for France and Racing Métro in the Eighties and Nineties, was mystified after Wales's 16-6 win. "The collective spirit is lacking," Charvet, who was commentating for radio, told me. "There is no team, no French team. Wales are a team, they play and fight for each other. France had no leader and no anger. Plus, the strategy – it's like the players are lost. As if they're asking themselves what they have to do. That's really surprised me."
He was thinking of François Trinh-Duc's attempted dropped goal when an overlap was on; of the unfinished bursts by the 19-stone Mathieu Bastareaud; of the brilliant centre Wesley Fofana being deployed on the wing; of a decent platform in the scrum and driving maul failing to launch the No 8, Louis Picamoles, into the gallops of his pre-Christmas form for Toulouse; of the sparky Morgan Parra on the bench while Saint-André persisted at half-back with Maxime Machenaud and Fréd-éric Michalak, who played through the autumn wins over Samoa, Argentina and Australia (by 33-6).
Those autumn results are helping sustain Saint-André. His coaches Yannick Bru (forwards) and Patrice Lagisquet (backs) are well regarded. There is a public acceptance that when Saint-André complains about his players' tiring season from August to June plus a summer tour (they face a daunting three Tests in New Zealand this year), he has a point.
They played for their clubs the week before the Six Nations and it cost France injuries to their current record try-scorer, Vincent Clerc, and full-back Brice Dulin. Furthermore, Saint-André has a certain standing and reputation, different to Lièvremont, a former flanker of 25 caps who spoke his mind. Saint-André captained France 34 times in his 69 Tests on the wing. He coached and managed in England with Gloucester and Sale (winning the Premiership in 2006), either side of a stint at Bourgoin, before handling the most thrusting of the big-spending Top 14 clubs, Toulon. Along the way he had a business in rugby travel, and was known for his transfer deals. Overall he is reckoned to be "un malin" – a clever, crafty fellow.
So Saint-André has made just five changes to his 23-man squad to face England, two down to injury with Clerc fit again, while Fofana is expected to switch to centre. The tough South African flanker, Antonie Claassen, is set to become France's ninth foreign-born Test cap of the modern era. Saracens' Charlie Hodgson, Sale's title-winning fly-half under Saint-André, believes his old boss won't panic. "If you keep a team for long enough they'll do well," Hodgson said. "England's World Cup-winning team had 50-odd games together. Philippe won't be bothered he's lost twice. We used to dread Monday-morning videos after a defeat but he'd let off steam and then it was over and we moved on."
Olivier Azam, the Toulon forwards coach and France hooker who played under Saint-André at Gloucester, says Les Bleus have problems only partly under the control of his pal. "Philippe cares a lot, he's unhappy, but he will give the players a chance to fix it," said Azam. "France got dominated by Wales in the contact area, and they need to go to Twickenham with no fear and be as aggressive as they can be. Michalak did not have his best game but it's more about the people around him. France were good in the set-piece but that's not enough in an international.
"There is not so much young talent around. It was the issue England faced 10 years ago, they reacted in a good way and now you see young players in the England team. They also have the LV= Cup to develop talent. In France we don't have that and also our clubs' bonus-point system is different. You have to close out a game, so youngsters don't get used. But this is all stuff Philippe knew when he took the job."
Le wooden spoon
France are bottom of the Six Nations' Championship with away matches in England and Ireland to come, followed by Scotland in Paris. Using the modern method of separating teams by points difference, the French have held the wooden spoon outright just three times since the Second World War.
Les Bleus' only Championship whitewash from the 1920s to date. Nine players, including popular scrum-half Gérard Dufau, were dropped.
France tried three captains in their four matches, settling on Walter Spanghero for the final, face-saving draw with champions Wales.
Began with a 10-9 win in Ireland but lost the rest, conceding eight tries at home to Wales and Scotland. But France reached the World Cup final later the same year.
Manu to start
Manu Tuilagi is set to start against France after the Leicester centre made a 32nd-minute comeback from an ankle injury in England's12-6 win in Ireland, and played for his club against Harlequins yesterday.
"Manu didn't start in Dublin because he hadn't played for a month," said England's coach, Stuart Lancaster. "But he did come on comparatively early, for tactical reasons. I won't be afraid to change a winning side. France present a different challenge to Scotland or Ireland, and they'll change their back line. I think [Wesley] Fofana will come into the centre alongside [Mathieu] Bastareaud."
Worryingly England lost four of their 13 line-outs against Ireland and Lancaster said: "That is one area we are looking at."
England's entire bench from Dublin – Dylan Hartley, Mako Vunipola, David Wilson, Courtney Lawes, Thomas Waldrom, Danny Care, Toby Flood and Tuilagi – were to start for their clubs yesterday or today.