David Flatman: French flair is just a fluke – give me the scrummaging
From the Front Row: Many Top 14 games are horrid to watch - unless you are a prop forward
Ijust love watching French rugby. I am still unsure what it is that keeps me so enthralled but for as long as I can remember they have remained the world's most enigmatic rugby nation.
We no longer have to wait for Rugby Special on a Sunday night. Now, for just three or four thousand pounds a month (or so it seems), we can watch just about as much sport as we can handle. And some bright spark decided that, for onlya few more of one's hard-earned, France's Top 14 might draw a few viewers. This rugby fanatic took the bait.
I may now live in a house with no heating and live on a diet of foraged scraps and roadkill, but I do get to watch Toulouse in High Definition, so I feel like I am winning.
After a few years of heavy consumption, I have come to form an entirely new opinion on French rugby. I do not particularly like my opinion, but I seem powerless to alter it. French flair is generally a fluke. There, I said it.
You see, as ritzy, rich and superstar-laden as the Top 14 is, many of the games are quite horrid to watch, unless you are a prop forward. There are some stunning players on show, and watch for long enough and you will see something breathtaking, but only after a ball has been passed to the floor, a cheeky chip-kick has landed in the stands or a penalty is awarded at the breakdown. Wonderfully, these "blips" are invariably met with a shrug of the shoulders, a splaying of the hands and that expression used only by Frenchmen that says: "What can you do?"
I have tried to relate my theory to my fellow front-rowers plying their trade in the hardest-scrummaging league of all, and I concluded that these props owe much of their status – in France the prop is king – to their friends out wide who seem so keen to drop the ball or be somewhere other than the right place when a move is called. After all, knock-ons mean scrums.
Last week I watched Toulon's galacticos take on Montpellier.The intensity was quite awesome. Anybody who thinks Carl Hayman gets paid too much money should get hold of that game. He doesn't get paid enough.
The tackling was as brutalas any Test match I have ever seen and the scrummaging was, honestly, beyond Test level. But in a way, you would expect these guys to be good at it as they get so much practice.
There seemed to be a scrum every two minutes; it was relentless. As we know that every scrum is preceded by an error, you can form your own guess at what was happening around the field. Some of the play was good, even brilliant, but so much of its appeal was the sheer savagery of the close-quarter confrontations.
So I can see why there are observers who describe the Top 14 as less than captivating. At last year's World Cup, France reached the final despite looking almost devoid of flair. But they were world-class in their physicality.
England can expect that as a minimum today. Les Bleus will have a go when others might play it safe, and it might even come off. The fact that not even the experts know what to expect just adds to this team's legend.
If the flip passes and the outside breaks work, we will be witnessing sporting poetry. If they don't, well, at least we will have a good load of scrums to get stuck into. Either way, watching them still feels like a privilege.
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