Rugby World Cup 2015: Usual French discord brings hopes to rivals ahead of tournament

Plenty of big names have been left behind by Philippe Saint-André for Saturday's game in England but, when it comes to World Cups, Les Bleus thrive on internal problems

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The Independent Online

It sounded like a cliché, despite Alex Goode’s well-established reputation for dodging the threadbare platitude almost as effectively as he avoids first-up tacklers when running the ball out of defence.

“If we worry too much about the French,” the England full-back said this week, “we risk tangling ourselves up. In a game like this one, so close to the World Cup, it has to be about us – about showcasing our own abilities and demonstrating how our game has developed over the last year.”

So far, so disappointingly predictable. But you could see his point, under the circumstances. For one thing, this Saturday’s England-France game at Twickenham is a means to an end rather than an end in itself: both coaching panels have awkward selection decisions ahead as they cut their squads for the global gathering and the “at risk” players have quite enough to concern them without fretting about the opposition.

For another, Les Bleus are even more of a mystery wrapped up in an enigma than usual, and therefore one step beyond analysis.

Philippe Saint-André, the France coach, has named a 25-strong party for Saturday night’s trip across the water. The remaining 11 members of his training squad – a group including some of the names most familiar to the English rugby public, including the centres Mathieu Bastareaud and Wesley Fofana, the outside-half Frédéric Michalak, the lock Pascal Papé and the flanker Thierry Dusautoir – will not be part of the travelling support. Instead, they will stay in camp in Marcoussis, a few miles south of Paris. It seems the “one for all and all for one” spirit remains a work in progress.

In World Cup years past, that sense of close-knit togetherness has remained elusive for the duration. In 1999, the internal squabbling did not stay internal for long; in 2011, two very senior players – Dimitri Yachvili and Imanol Harinordoquy – ended up running the show, leaving the head coach Marc Lièvremont wondering what had happened to his authority. And guess what? On both occasions France reached the final. Only when they have been at their most settled have they punched below their weight.

Saint-André being Saint-André, sweetness and light has been at a premium: the love and respect he commanded as a player, as the scorer of the “try from nowhere” at Twickenham in 1991 and the architect of the “try from the end of the earth” in Auckland three years later, has not been forthcoming since he succeeded Lièvremont as head cook and bottle washer at the start of this World Cup cycle.

Partly, this has been down to results – his side have not finished above the fold in the Six Nations table in four attempts – and partly down to style, which has been 90 per cent Rambo and only 10 per cent Rimbaud.

Sure enough, the coach’s initial selection for the World Cup training programme generated plenty of criticism: three high-calibre Maximes – Médard, Mermoz and Machenaud – were ignored, as was the outside-half Camille Lopez. And when he tried to add Jules Plisson to his original 36-strong elite as the gifted Stade Français playmaker recovered from a dislocated shoulder, he was told that under an agreement between the French governing body and the top-flight clubs, he had already reached a numerical limit that could not be exceeded.

And then there was the intriguingly timed confirmation that following the World Cup, the greybearded sage of Toulouse rugby, Guy Novès, would take over as top chien. “I think that was clumsy,” said the former Tricolore boss Bernard Laporte in an interview with the website Planet Rugby. “The news could have been kept secret and should have been.”

Yet all this makes France more dangerous rather than less, as the nervous Irish hierarchy privately acknowledge as they build towards what seems certain to be the Pool D decider between the two countries at the Millennium Stadium on 11 October.

As Laporte went on to say: “It’s true that the national team have been playing badly for three years, that they’ve been very inconsistent. But they have a chance because they have good players. A World Cup is exceptional because essentially you have to win only three games – a quarter-final, a semi-final and the final. Anything is possible.”

There will be a glimpse of those possibilities at Twickenham, but no more than that. Unlike the England head coach Stuart Lancaster, who started his preparations with more than 50 players in the mix, Saint-André has spent the entire summer working with an extremely select group – a clear advantage, according to many of those who have first-hand experience of plotting and planning for a global tournament.

By leaving some of the crème de la crème at home, the man from Romans-sur-Isère is keeping the mystery, and indeed the enigma, alive.

French connections: 2015 results and fixtures

Results (all Six Nations)

7 Feb Scotland (h) Won 15-8

14 Feb Ireland (a) Lost 18-11

28 Feb Wales (a) Lost 20-13

15 Mar Italy (a) Won 29-0

21 Mar England (a) Lost 55-35

Fixtures

Saturday England (a)

22 Aug England (h)

5 Sept Scotland (h)

19 Sept Italy (Twickenham, opening World Cup pool match)

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