Somewhere in the Definitive Guide to Successful Rugby Management must be a chapter dedicated to captains: how to choose them, when to appoint them, how to treat them and how much power to entrust them with. If the book does exist, Bernard "Kaiser" Laporte has not read it.
It is not so much that France's new manager was wrong to hand the captaincy to Fabien Pelous, but rather that his choice was unexpected. In terms of age and experience, Pelous is the ideal candidate: still only 26, he has won 50 caps, played in a World Cup, won two Grand Slams, and captained his club side, Toulouse. It is his background, though, which makes him an intriguing option.
Often referred to as Jean-Claude Skrela's spiritual son, Pelous is a symbol of the previous era. Was the Kaiser, who replaced Skrela after France lost the World Cup final, making sure one of the camp's senior and most influential generals was behind his campaign or was he simply appointing the "right man for the job in hand"? Difficult to know. Either way, the decision was a brave one.
"Yes, it was a risk," Pelous said of his appointment, "but it did not surprise me because I was experienced and understood how things worked." In fact, Pelous not only knew the system, he was one of its key components, which explains why so many thought the new coach should have brought in his own man. "Why?" Pelous asked. "I am just representing a new approach, a new way of thinking. Bernard is somebody who is very authoritarian. He knows what he wants and tries to convey his ideas to the players. My responsibility is to get the instructions carried out."
Pelous was speaking at the CafÃ© de L'ArrivÃ©e, a bar in the Orly Airport arrivals lounge. The occasion was not just relaxed, it was also typically Gallic. Only the French could turn an informal media gathering into a slick operation. "It is true that I am incredibly close to Jean-Claude, but I get on just as well with Bernard," Pelous continued. "My appointment shows Bernard acknowledges the good that went before him and wants to establish some kind of continuity. He doesn't want to force his ways and ideas on us." The Kaiser, it seems, is no tyrant dictator.
"Not at all, but he has his own methods and tactics. Whereas with Jean-Claude our entire strategy was based on quick thinking and being able to adapt to any situation anywhere on the pitch, Bernard tends to be more meticulous and rigorous during training.
"He is not trying to get rid of our natural flair," Pelous added, "but he wants to make sure we do the simple things - like scrums, line-outs and tap-penalty moves - well. Jean-Claude trusted the individual's ability, Bernard believes in the team's strength."
The new-look Tricolores, despite the numerous injuries they have had to contend with since the beginning of the Six Nations (Christophe Lamaison, Legi Matiu, Thomas CastaignÃ¿de, Fabien GalthiÃ©, Christophe Dominici), have been in impressive form. They defeated Wales at the Millennium Stadium on the opening day of the championship and narrowly lost to England on home soil before recording only their third victory in 20 years at Murrayfield two weeks ago. "It's been good," Pelous said, "and I've enjoyed the captaincy. But the adaptation period has been made difficult because of the injuries. They mean we're having to change the physiognomy of the group for every game. The lack of continuity is slowing down our progress as a unit."
The loss of so many players would have crippled most teams, but France have a new-found self-belief these days, and they appear to be coping admirably. That recent stability owes much to their forwards, and in particular the back-row combination of Abdel Benazzi and Olivier Magne flanking their captain. When France were leading Scotland 18-16 with 10 minutes to go, you sensed the Scottish forwards would charge ahead, put them under huge pressure and force a penalty. A year ago that tactic might well have worked, but this French side are far more disciplined and calm. The Tricolores weathered the storm, took the game to Scotland and won 25-16. That is Fabien Pelous' French revolution.
"I think our strength has been the stability and reliability of the front-five," Pelous argued. "It is not false modesty. I really do think that they have made all the difference. We've been lucky to keep those guys fit and in the starting line-up for every match so far this season." France's "grands" five would play again today, as would their world-class back-row, were it not for Pelous having to replace the injured Hugues Miorin at lock, and Magne having to serve a three-week ban following his contretemps with Stuart Reid in Edinburgh. "A disappointing and dubious verdict," Laporte said, referring to the fact that the match commissioner who cited Magne, John West, is a former international referee from Ireland.
"This sentence was already decided before the hearing and I sensed that when I arrived in Dublin," Magne said. "After all, I was being heard by Irishmen in Ireland a week before we play Ireland."
Pelous has decided to bite his tongue and accept the ban, but he will be worried that yet another one of his players has had to withdraw from the squad. Today's starting XV will count no fewer than six changes from the side picked to play Wales in the tournament opener. "It worries me because Ireland really are a good side," Pelous said. "England and France are still the European powers, there is no question of that, but such is the nature of the sport that others are catching up fast. Professionalism has allowed teams like Italy and Ireland to progress far more quickly than in the past.
"I honestly get the impression that Ireland are on the brink of something big," he continued. "After a lean period over the last 20 years or so, you get the feeling they're starting to believe in themselves and are moving forward. This is going to be a very tough game."
Although the Ireland coach, Warren Gatland, has instilled some discipline, confidence and tactical nous, he is unlikely to have found the key to unlock the French on their own patch. But if Ireland have not won in Paris since 1972 -14-9 at the Stade Colombes - they will be buoyed by their narrow defeat (18-16) at the Stade de France in 1998.
"They're confident and unbridled," Pelous said. "And that makes them dangerous." Perhaps so, but this is not likelyto be the day his well-versed Tricolores fluff their lines.Reuse content