Sip by sip - and with the odd splutter - the French acquire a taste for Europe
Sunday 20 October 2002
Although Bristol bravely stemmed the French tide in this season's Heineken Cup with a heroic defensive display against Montferrand, their visitors failed to live up to the standards set by their fellow raiders from France.
The fact they came away from home and dominated a game they should have won may give Montferrand some heart, but when you have key players such as Gerald Merceron and Olivier Magne performing so badly it is hard to get a result.
Good wins for Bourgoin at Sale and Biarritz at Cardiff last Saturday were followed up in impressive style by Toulouse at Newport on Friday night. Bourgoin's big win over Llanelli, also on Friday, was by no means as emphatic as the 54-38 score suggests but shows how the French attitude to European club rugby has changed. Biarritz's late win over Northampton yesterday was another indication.
The priority they gaveto their own championship in the past is one of the reasons for the poor away form the French have shown in the Heineken Cup, which saw them labelled as poor travellers. The realisation that standards have fallen at home and that the real tests were on the other side of the channel brought a dramatic change of emphasis. I'm not ready to give them the trophy yet, though. We have to see how they last the pace between now and the final, and how well they are going to tough it out against English clubs like Gloucester and Northampton in the later stages.
But at the moment their transformation is epitomised by Toulouse, who, of course, won the first Heineken final back in 1996 when they beat Cardiff 21-18 at the Arms Park. I remember it well, because I was playing for Cardiff at the time.
Toulouse have not been in a final since indeed, no French team have won it in the last five years but they are laying down early evidence of their intentions.
Newport have yet to win a match this season but they have a very experienced team and are hard to beat at home. When the Welsh club went 19-14 up just before half-time it gave the home fans some hope. But the quality of Toulouse had already been demonstrated in the two tries they had scored previously, and in the second half they just picked up the pace and mangled Newport in the scrum.
Newport's main problem is that many of their side are getting too old and, although I am sure a win will do much to restore their confidence, they cannot handle a side this quick and clever.
It wasn't just their pace that made Toulouse such a pleasure to watch, though. Their angled running and intricate moves were a delight, but they have added the tough edge of professionalism to their natural flair.
This, I think, is becoming true of much of French rugby. They were professional in the sense in getting rewards from the game long before we were, but they have been slow in getting professional about their approach.
They have raised the intensity of their game while retaining their flair and creativity and improving their discipline. I think Montferrand have some catching up to do in the discipline direction, but Toulouse certainly do not seem inclined to donate penalties to the opposition like the French teams of old. They still retain their unique style, attacking from first phase and being willing to shorten their line-out to bring their big back-rows into play.
I particularly like their support play. They don't run on the shoulder of the ball-carrier like we tend to; they run behind, picking which side is more favourable when they come for the pass; more often than not, they run on to a short ball and into the hole. It is dynamic and difficult to defence against.
That's another strength of Toulouse they are always asking questions of the defence. They are not looking for contact, they look for space, and they make it difficult for defenders.
My man of the match on Friday was Toulouse's 6ft 4in centre, Yannick Jauzion, who is typical of the superb centres coming through in France. They suffered a dearth following the retirement of Phillipe Sella, but at centre they are starting to match the production of back-row giants.
It all augurs well for France, who I am starting to fancy very strongly for next year's World Cup.
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