Saint-André kicking himself as French caution backfires
Les Bleus were caught short by an impressive England and paid the price for some conservative tactics, writes Hugh Godwin
Stop the ferries, fill in the Channel Tunnel and cut off all ties to Heathrow: poor Philippe Saint-André has had enough. He lost to England six times out of eight when he faced them as a player, occasions on which he was sometimes France's captain as well as a wing with a repertoire including a famous try that went the length of Twickenham.
When he moved into coaching, a whole saddlebag of his spurs were earned in our green and pleasant land, with 'PSA' well-regarded for his work with Gloucester and Sale. Yesterday, when given the chance to show us what he has learnt, the fourth match in to doing the national job in his homeland, what happened? England went and won at the Stade de France, that's what. Sometimes it's hard being an Anglophile.
Actually, it felt more phobe than phile when you looked at Saint-André's team selection. Repeating a mistake made by his immediate predecessor Marc Lièvremont, when France brought a gigantic pack to Twickenham in 2009 designed to intimidate, only for them to preen like poodles, there was fear not positivity in the choice of Julien Dupuy and Lionel Beauxis at half-back. A kicking game looked on. And whereas those of us north of Dover's white cliffs were fretting over where England's next try might come from, France were preoccupied with pinning the previously unthreatening English back three down.
The last thing Saint-André said before the start was that the last thing France wanted was a sluggish opening. Yet he had sent his XV out with caution built in. And when England scored two tries early from counter-attacks the home game plan was shot. No good kicking now, monsieur.
It encouraged France to run. They were 14-3 down, mind you, but they ran. And in a team with roughly three-times as many caps as England, it was the newest face on the canvas being painted pitchside by the stadium's resident artist that you most wanted to see. Wesley Fofana – Paris-born of Mali stock and playing at centre for Clermont-Auvergne – has, at 24, bided his time, unlike the 20-year-old thrusters of England's midfield, Owen Farrell and Manu Tuilagi. Given his head in this Six Nations, Fofana has not only scored a try in each match, he has made opposing defenders look like fools, picking gaps with ease and combining raw pace with a finisher's knack. He is also the only Wesley ever to have played international rugby (save for a little-known Dutchman we need not be bothered about).
What Fofana would not have relished – and this called into question the whole French set-up yesterday – was being asked to give stolid chase to up and unders and box kicks from Messrs Dupuy and Beauxis. You don't ask Usain Bolt to run the 10,000 metres, or David Hockney to paint and decorate a 20-storey tower block. It took England's blasting early scores to make Saint-André's France see the bleeding obvious and begin to move the ball through the hands.
This, in turn, came with risk, which perhaps was why the French did not set out that way. The old days of leggy French backs running rings round red-faced Englishmen at Stade Colombes and Parc des Princes are long gone. Now the visiting Rosbifs fielded Brad Barritt, Mouritz Botha, Manu Tuilagi and Chris Ashton — okay, two South Africans, a Samoan and a Wigan rugby leaguer – leaping forward from the defensive line. For a French centre, it is not easy, no? There you are, wind blowing through your hair, ah, here we go, pass, sashay, pass, wiggle your hips – boom! 'Zut', you've been nailed by a white jersey.
There were flashes of great style from Fofana, and Clément Poitrenaud, as they attempted to go against the grain – long established in the French domestic league, by the way – of simply grinding away. Julien Malzieu on the wing had a dash too, until cut down by the magnificent pace of Tom Croft. Barritt will tell you he played as a running fly-half for Natal in his early career but does not have the natural movement of his opposite number.
But Barritt was the dominant force, and England were galvanised by their unflappable captain, Chris Robshaw, who would drop a ball one second but come back running and tackling the next. Fofana scored from a scrum in the final quarter but when he might have had another around the same time, he was stopped by a lunging tackle from Phil Dowson, England's replacement back-rower.
Dowson took a leg in the head from his opponent and a set of studs to his face from his own team-mate Croft, and had to go off, bloodied and very dazed. It looked at the end as if an England physio was telling him the score. The French knew it, all right. Saint-André, surely, would have liked to have started all over again.
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