Peter Bills: France Top 14 was bog-standard

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The Independent Online

The evening sun softened into an exquisite light, the temperature was balmy. Ground conditions were perfect.

Even so, on the evidence of the first weekend of the new French Top 14 season, the style of rugby perfected in particular by the All Blacks in this season's southern hemisphere Tri-Nations competition has yet to reach the shores of Europe.

Much of what we saw last weekend in France, even from some of the best sides, was pretty bog-standard stuff. Aerial ping-pong, that plague of the modern game, was still in evidence and that old French bête noire of recent years, finding an opponent to crunch into rather than seeking space and then off-loading in the tackle, still pre-dominated.

Of course, all this was light years away from the attack based, running style of play, with which New Zealand have dominated the Tri-Nations. But it seems that in Europe, even with little more than a year left before the next World Cup, old habits are going to die hard. If they die at all.....

When you see players from a team such as Stade Toulouse, with the talent in its back line plus the agility and pace of its forwards, continuing to hoist aimless downfield punts from ball received in their own 22 isolated in yards of space, you realise that much has yet to change in the northern hemisphere.

The new approach that has been hallmarked by the All Blacks is, intrinsically, a philosophy. It is possible only if everyone buys into it and wants to explore another side to this game. You can't be half pregnant and you can't be half interested in this approach. You either play it properly, full-on, or you stick with a more orthodox game.

It was discouraging to see Toulouse, even though they scored six tries, kicking away so much quality possession. Sure, they scored their tries in part because Agen are newly promoted back to the Top 14 and lacked the physicality and defensive structure to contain their opponents' occasional moments of invention.

Interestingly, players like wing Cedric Heymans and outside half David Skrela did seek space rather than contact. But Yannick Jauzion of all people seems relentlessly programmed to bash the ball up into the traffic. Surely a player of his talents can do more than that. Likewise full-back Clement Poitrenaud who, far too often, caught an Agen downfield kick and just booted it skywards himself in the opposite direction.

Not everyone will adapt to this potentially new game with the alacrity, not to say cunning, of New Zealand. But of all the countries, you have to believe France could do so. They have the birthright, pace, tradition and, much of the year, the ground conditions.

Much of this is a complete mystery, a bizarre concoction. Toulon, for example, spend a fortune recruiting wings like England's Paul Sackey and Rudi Wolf, the New Zealander from the Auckland Blues, and then line up ten kicks at goal in their home match against Bayonne. Equally bizarrely, Bayone won, 26-22 to provide the biggest upset on the opening day.

Finally, to the weekend's weirdest syndrome of all. 2009 Champions Perpignan, a team stuffed full of back line attacking runners, beat Clermont Auvergne, 21-13 thanks to five penalty goals and two drop goals. Clermont scored the only try of the game yet they made some telling breaks and runs, not least on the counter-attack.

No great surprise, perhaps, given that Clermont, the reigning champions, are coached by a New Zealander, Vern Cotter, and have just signed former Waikato Chiefs back row forward Sione Lauaki.

Now Lauaki was some way short of full fitness and still well below his best. But he made a couple of absolutely barn-storming runs, and one off-load in a 3-man tackle was simply audacious. It offered striking evidence that he at least understands where this game is going, or rather should be.

But perhaps above all, last weekend reminded us how deeply ingrained into the players' systems of recent times this aimless kicking and the pursuit of penalty goals have become.