English rugby may still be surfing on the wave of post-World Cup euphoria, but across the English Channel in France the rugby community is awash with doubt and dissension. To put it bluntly, the semi-final loss against England in Sydney last November, followed by the capitulation against New Zealand in the third-place play-off, have left a bitter taste lingering in the mouth, while the automatic reappointment of Bernard Laporte as national coach has also raised the hackles of rugby people throughout the country.
For Olivier Magne, France's veteran flanker about to start his eighth season of international rugby, there is only one thing that will get Les Bleus back on the rails: a convincing win in the opening game against Ireland in Paris today. Followed, hopefully, by a string of other victories that will set up the France-England game on 27 March as a Grand Slam showdown. "After the disappointment of the World Cup, the essential thing for us is to get some wins under the belt and to get our confidence back," Magne said. "We did a lot of good things at the World Cup, we played some great rugby in the early rounds, and it is important for us to build on the foundations that we laid during last year's 'Mondial'. And this year the fixture list is in our favour, as we will be playing the two biggest threats, Ireland and England, in front of our home crowd."
The retirement of captain Fabien Galthié and of (former captain) Raphael Ibanez represent a huge loss to the French, not just because of their leadership qualities, but also because of their crucial importance as decision-makers in the key positions of scrum-half and hooker. They will no doubt prove very difficult to replace, and while Magne's former Dax club-mate Fabien Pelous has been appointed as the new captain, it may be time for Magne himself, as an elder statesman of the French team, to step into the vacuum left by his brother-in-law, Ibanez.
"If the team management want me to contribute, I would be honoured to do so," Magne acknowledged. "I have been around a bit and I can perhaps have a settling influence on some of the younger players. If I can set the example, and bring them a degree of 'tranquillité', I can perhaps help them to give more to the team effort." With 72 tests to his name, Magne has indeed "been around a bit". He is the most-capped flanker in the history of French rugby and, within reach of former Wallaby David Wilson's record of 79 caps, could easily become the world's most-capped flanker by the end of the season. He was even captain of France, once, against Italy in the Six Nations two years ago, an event which became more a mill-stone than a mile-stone, as he was suspended for 23 days after stamping on winger Denis Dallan's head in a ruck. "It was just one of those things, and I deeply regret what happened," he said, recalling the incident. "But it was a good lesson, because it stands as a reminder that against
teams like Italy, even when they decide to play negative, destructive rugby, you have to keep your cool. We know that to beat Italy, we have to get points on the board quickly. But above all, we have to keep our discipline and self-control."
With the majority of the 22-man squad selected for France's first two championship games against Ireland and Italy having participated at the World Cup, Magne believes they can continue to build on the game plan that saw France humiliate Scotland 51-9 in their Pool D game, and go out to a 37-0 lead against Ireland in the quarter-final, before eventually winning 43-21. "Both Ireland and Scotland will be out to avenge their defeats at the World Cup and we will be treating them with nothing but the utmost respect," Magne considered. "With Keith Wood's retirement, the Irish have lost one of their major strengths, but I have no doubt that they have found a suitable replacement. The Irish teams have once again been impressive in the European Cup, so we know that if we want to start our championship well, we will have to be on top of our game to beat them in the opening round." Despite the old chestnut of "taking each game one at a time", there is no denying that French eyes are firmly fixed on the final weekend of the championship, and the possibility of a Grand Slam shoot-out between England and France in Paris. "Ooh là! I just hope that it will be the match that decides the winner," Magne exclaimed.
Apart from the immense public and media interest generated by such a northern hemisphere final, for Magne, it would also be an opportunity to avenge the rain-sodden defeat in Sydney, a game in which he was one of the first to suffer as his sparkling ball-skills and all-round pace were nullified by England's forward power. "I don't buy into the theory that England beat us because of the weather in Australia. Our game was admittedly based less on power and more on running the ball, and of course we would have preferred to have played against England in different conditions, with a dry ball and a fast track. But you have to be able to adapt to all kinds of situations, and England were better prepared than we were. They had the means to win whatever the conditions. They were the better team, c'est tout."
At 31 years of age, Magne knows that for a player of his ilk the sands of time are slipping quickly away and, despite the examples of Neil Back and Simon Poidevin (World Cup winning flankers at 33 and 34 respectively), the chances of him playing for France in the 2007 World Cup are very slim. "For me, from here on in, it's all about living for the present, so I am determined to take every opportunity with both hands. It would be an honour to be able to play against the world champions, with all the commitment it entails. We all know England, and we know how they play, but we also know that to beat them, you have to play the perfect game. And for me, there can be nothing more motivating than the idea of playing against a team like England."
Ian Borthwick writes on rugby union for the French newspaper L'Equipe
Coach: Bernard Laporte
Captain: Fabien Pelous
Assistant coach: Jacques Brunel, Bernard Vivies, Dave Ellis
Fitness coach: Daniel Servais
Team manager: Jo Maso
Ground: Stade de France (capacity: 80,000)
Anthem: La Marseillaise
Grand Slam wins: 7 (1968, 77, 81, 87, 97, 98, 2002)
Biggest win: Wales 0 France 51 (1998)
Biggest defeat: France 0 England 37 (1911)
FRENCH MEMORY - THOMAS CASTAIGNÉDE (Debut 1995, 43 caps)
Ask Thomas Castaignede, the little wizard from Mont de Marsan who has lit up so many Five and Six Nations matches for France, for his favourite memory of those games, and he stops and scratches his head. Then he ducks, as a ball thrown by a team-mate whizzes over his head.
"I think it's when we won the Grand Slam with France, you know?" he says. That would be 1998, when Castaignède inspired his side to a 51-0 closing win over the Welsh at Wembley that had the critics cooing and the club owners across Europe pulling out their chequebooks.
"Or maybe the first game I played with France against England." That would be the last such match at the old Parc des Princes in 1996, when the cheeky 21-year-old outside-half dropped a goal in the final seconds for an 18-15 win that ended a sequence of six successive Five Nations for Les Rosbifs and did much to set up Les Bleus for their Grand Slams of 1997 and '98. Castaignède's tongue-poking celebration remains one of the championship's most enduring images. What were you thinking, Thomas?
"Ah, nothing, nothing. Just 'express yourself', you know? Why not have a go? I took my chance, and voila! So I was happy. It's always exciting to play against England, because economically we are the two major nations of Europe, you know, and the rivalry is there.
The Six Nations means the world to the Saracens back: "The championship was created long before the World Cup or the Super 12," he says. "It's an old tournament and everybody is excited by that." So who were you excited by, as a child? Castaignède's eyes cloud over. "Sella, Blanco, Charvet. I can reel them off for you. I loved the kind of magic they had when I was watching rugby as a kid and it made me want to play rugby too."
Any fan of the Six Nations owes those great French backs of the 1980s a toast for that.
Martin PengellyReuse content