Skrela eager to mix realism with flair

Ian Borthwick reports from Paris on the new coach of France, who are desperate to beat England in Saturday's opening game in the Five Nations' Championship
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Here we go again. Just when things were starting to look promising for French rugby, they go and commit another ritual hara-kiri. Pierre Berbizier was sacked last September, despite his impressive record and the creditable third placing at the World Cup, and the Federation Francaise de Rugby is currently involved in yet another virulent public slanging match as sectors of the French press, fanned by the explosive revelations in the daily L'Equipe, bay for the blood of its hapless president, Bernard Lapasset.

Jean-Claude Skrela, France's new coach, however, feigns the naive indifference of a newcomer to these political shenanigans, and has deliberately steered clear of any involvement. "The only thing that interests me is what happens on the field of play," he said. "I just hope we are strong enough to rise above all this." Indeed, if Skrela has any political thoughts at all they are more concerned with the darkening gloom and ever-growing pessimism which currently pervade French society. The depth of emotion in the public mourning of President Mitterrand aside, public morale remains severely shaken by the disruptive strikes in December and the threat of more to come.

According to Skrela, the French XV has a role to play as an antidote: "In this current context it is important to give people a little pleasure. It's the least we can do. If the players themselves experience pleasure on the field they will transmit it to the spectators and to all those watching on TV."

Called in to take over the reigns of the French team last autumn, Skrela has had a dream debut. Only weeks after his appointment France won the Latin Cup, comprehensively outclassing Argentina in the final at Bueno Aires, while in November in the first Test at Toulouse they stormed to an unexpected victory over New Zealand before losing a week later. Arguably the most complete game of rugby ever seen at the Parc des Princes, this second Test was a match of such intensity, with the ball in play for a total of 33 minutes (as compared to the average of 26) that it surpassed anything the Five Nations' Championship has yet produced in Paris. "You wouldn't believe the number of people who stopped me in the street, or who rang me to say how much pleasure they got from that game," said Skrela, noting that France finished the series with five tries against four for the All Blacks. Despite losing 12-37, however, it was as if this thunderous game, the first real challenge of the Skrela era, not only confirmed the Tricolors' world ranking, but also gave France the right to align themselves with the best from the southern hemisphere.

Against England on Saturday Skrela, a former back row forward who played 46 times for France between 1971 and 78, intends to maintain that standing. Raw-boned and uncompromising, he made a name for himself as a hard-working flanker who was ahead of his time in his fanatical devotion to physical fitness, and if last week's squad session is an indication, he intends transferring the same fanaticism to his players.

His appointment as coach comes as a significant break with a French tradition which has tended to give preference to the personality of celebrated former players, rather than coaches with a proven track record. Unlike his three predecessors, Jacques Fouroux, Daniel Dubroca and Berbizier, who all jumped directly from player to coach, Skrela can already boast an impressive cv as a coach at all levels of the game. As an employee of the Colomiers town council he has coached schoolboys since 1970, and has considerable experience coaching First Division club sides, notably at Colomiers, where he was in charge when the FFR called him to the rescue, and Toulouse.

If Skrela's experience meant that he was immediately able to set up systems and routines with the French XV, it also meant there was no delay in hauling over the coals some of the more unruly elements and eliminating the bad habits carried by some of the newcomers from club rugby into the national side. The off-the-ball antics of Richard Dourthe against the All Blacks, and the incessant niggling of Toulouse's Philippe Carbonneau in the European Cup final against Cardiff, cannot have failed to attract the eye of English observers. At the recent squad session near Toulon, Skrela made a point of singling these players out.

Admittedly, Skrela has already been prepared to take a number of risks in building his side, and it is clear that his strategy is focused more on the long term than on ensuring results in the short term. He had no hesitation, for instance, in blooding the two young centres Dourthe (21) and Thomas Castaignede (20) against the All Blacks, nor in taking a gamble on the uncapped Michel Perie to play at loose head against England on Saturday. "My belief is that if these players are not ready now they never will be ready."

Despite the pressure for France to perform on Saturday, and to put an end to seven years of defeat against England in the Championship, Skrela appears adamant that he will not change tactics simply to ensure victory. "If you play a dynamic running style of rugby you expose yourself to certain risks," he said. "I don't want to see a French team which is timid, which waits for the opposition to make the play, or until the last minute to score a try."

"My instructions to the players are simply not to be restrictive. We are under no illusions, and we know that England still has a very strong team. They were recently booed by their own crowd so I'm sure they will have something to prove."

So is the well-being of the French public still uppermost in his mind? "Yes. They come to watch us so we must bring them a little happiness. It is part of the role of the French team, and of rugby in general," he said. "But despite all that we still have to win." Skrela might be a philanthropist he is still a realist at heart.