Former French President Charles de Gaulle knew his onions from his garlic. "How can you unite a country that produces 263 kinds of cheese" he once asked ?
Imagine then the task of French rugby coach Marc Lievremont, trying to discover and settle on 23 players from the Top 14 clubs to make up a squad of French rugby men capable of winning the Rugby World Cup.
Ah, the World Cup, you say. Long time away, isn't it? Er, no. Given that the march upon another Christmas is about to begin, thereafter just 18 months will be left before the 2011 tournament kicks off in New Zealand.
Of all the big five rugby playing nations of the world, France is the only one that has yet to win a World Cup. Now given the extraordinary reserves of talent that have sloshed around the French game like vast quantities of Burgundy or Bordeaux wine, this is faintly absurd. Down the years, the French have had powerful forwards as intimidating as grizzly bears and backs as fleet of foot as a deer crossing an open country field. What more could you want to succeed?
Alas, to become world champions in any sport requires rather more than exceptional physical attributes. Mental durability and an iron-like will to prevail, to fight through the tough times, are the hallmarks of world champions. Why do you think Australians and Americans are so successful in a variety of sports? Were it not the case, Tim Henman would probably have been Wimbledon champion three times over.
France had a glorious chance to win the Rugby World Cup in their own country two years ago but blew it. Why then should they succeed in faraway New Zealand in two years time ? Well, as always with the French, the best way to approach it is by saying ‘Why not'?
On paper, the French can easily put out a team of 15 highly talented individuals. Alas, there are two difficulties with that statement. Rugby matches are not played on paper and they are seldom won merely by talented individuals. Teams, units win games, just as partnerships are so influential among batsmen on the cricket field.
Thus, Lievremont's problem is that he must weld together a real team, a side able to construct its own identity. He made the proverbial pig's arse of the task last winter, changing winning teams, tinkering with the personnel when he should have left well alone. It meant that the French once again squandered an opportunity to find cohesion and understanding among a selected group.
Lievremont cannot continue to muck around in this fashion. This autumn, he starts from the promising base of a French victory on New Zealand soil last June. Indeed, his team so nearly took out the 2-match Test series by winning both games, but eventually had to settle for a 1-1 draw.
But continuity is now essential. The trouble is, French rugby coaches are prone to the same tendencies of French chefs: always experimenting....why not add this for aesthetic delight, take that out this time, it bores me. But you cannot do that with sports teams.
Just about every single country that has won the Rugby World Cup to date has done so with a tried and tested combination. Players have forged an understanding of the team ethos and their colleagues' ways through a lengthy period. No team that is constantly altered can hope to achieve this essential and fundamental understanding and bonding.
Right now, I doubt whether anyone in France could come up with more than 10 of the team likely to face, among others, South Africa and New Zealand, in this autumn international programme. But they should. After all, form is temporary, class permanent.
Unfortunately, such truisms are largely disregarded in the world of French rugby. It may be exciting to see a thrilling new young wing hurtling around the Stade de France in February, come 6 Nations time. But the trouble is, we see that almost every season with little long term gain.
France ought to have won a World Cup by now, but they never will unless there is a shrewder, lighter hand on the selection tiller than has been the case in the past.Reuse content