Six Nations: France head back to basics as Thierry Dusautoir leads rapid rebuild
Saturday 23 February 2013
The hotel chosen by France for their London base sits on the crest of Richmond Hill, looking down across the Thames to Twickenham. There was nothing aloof about yesterday's gathering to address the challenge that lies ahead on the other side of the river this evening, instead it was all about elevating England higher than a Joe Launchbury lineout leap.
"Very impressive," said captain Thierry Dusautoir of his side's opponents recent performances. Yannick Bru, a former Grand Slam winner and now part of Philippe Saint-André's coaching staff was even more effusive, labelling them the "team which dominates Europe". It is all a far cry from France's last visit to Twickenham two years ago when Marc Lièvremont called his men to arms with the assertion that they, and everyone else in the Six Nations from Rome to Edinburgh via Cardiff and Dublin disliked the English.
France lost that day, as they have on all but one of their Six Nations outings to London, and Lièvremont is long gone. But not before he enjoyed one last hurrah over his old foe by knocking them out of the 2011 World Cup. That was the catalyst for regime change in both camps with Stuart Lancaster and Saint-André installed to oversee long-term projects through to the next global gathering.
So far so very good for Lancaster but for Saint-André the drawing board has been brought out again. This, like all sporting projects, is still results-driven. Nearly half the side that began against Wales has gone. Yesterday Dusautoir rejected suggestions that France could draw parallels with what happened in New Zealand, when England were once again strong favourites against a Les Bleus side perceived to be in a state of disarray.
"It is different to 2011," he said. "It is a new team, a very different team and a young team. In the World Cup we had more experience."
Instead the focus is inwards. There is an acknowledgement of where England are, emphatically occupying the higher ground, and that has meant France, following their worst start to the tournament in more than 30 years, deciding to concentrate on sorting themselves out before they begin to try and sort out the English.
Words like "collective", "work" and "intensity" have been the stock phrases of the week. "We have just focused on our own game-plan because in the last two games we made so many bad choices in our attacking plan," said Bru. "We haven't focused on the English team, we [have] just tried to improve our team, look to our strengths. We lost so many opportunities in the first two games.
"We have to concentrate on ourselves, our strengths, our qualities, before looking at the opposition. If we had taken our opportunities we would have had at least one victory coming to Twickenham. That was the focus in training this week. It will be a very good test for the mentality and character of the team – what the guys have in their stomach. It will be a very tough test to play at Twickenham – against this English team which dominates Europe at the moment. We will see the character of the guys."
Bru brushed off suggestions that France might struggle to combat England's physicality but the French were also keen to caution against widely-held expectations of a bruising confrontation. We are, the message went, still capable of playing rugby.
"We are physical too. Mathieu Bastareaud is not very weak is he?" said Bru. "We will concentrate on our qualities – it would be a big mistake to focus on Manu Tuilagi or Courtney Lawes or Dylan Hartley – the English team is very skilled. We will try to do our best – simple."
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