Nineteen consecutive defeats has rightly seen Italy’s place in the Six Nations placed under serious scrutiny as the threat of relegation looms large, particularly with World Rugby currently debating how to revamp the sport at international level.
Italian director of rugby Conor O’Shea may have been upset with the tone of questioning after Saturday’s 26-15 defeat by Wales – once again claiming that any match in which his side performs well is always put down to the opposition having an off day – but three years and counting without a single win is huge concern for their long-term future.
But the one thing the Italians can say this week is at least they turned up.
What a team claiming to be France produced at Twickenham was arguably one of the worst performances seen in the championship’s history. The way they failed to learn from the error of their ways in defending the space in back-field that England so brutally exposed was at best amateur, and should lead to serious repercussions if they are to salvage any face from this year’s campaign.
Critics will argue that the signs were already there after throwing away a 16-point lead against Wales, but at least what France showed during that breathtaking first-half display was a desire to play by players who look like they will have a bright future on the international stage.
Yet come week two of the Six Nations and Jacques Brunel completely tore up their new philosophy in fear of the damage England could inflict. Mathieu Bastareaud was recalled, in came Geoffrey Doumayrou, Morgan Parra was retained at scrum-half... and yet England destroyed them anyway.
Plenty of attention was also paid to Brunel’s bizarre back-three selection. Gael Fickou and Damian Penaud, both centres by trade, were named on the wing, with the only natural wing in the squad in Yoann Huget selected at full-back. It was no surprise that England deliberately targeted the trio and reaped the rewards as a result. And what did Brunel have to say of this selection after the final whistle on Sunday?
“There is nothing to say. The match was over by half-time, bravo to them.”
Brunel does not inspire confidence at the best of times, yet by showing a complete reluctance to accept responsibility for the embarrassing performance, he has shown that his time in the hot seat should be up.
One player who chose to speak anonymously to French newspaper Midi Olympique said after Sunday: “It was chaos. Nobody knew which position to play. We were lost on the pitch and tried to ask the bench.” They were given nothing in response.
Brunel’s predecessor, Guy Noves, was replaced for far less, and as one leading French rugby writer put it in the press box on Sunday, “Brunel is too old for the job”. That is not a slight on his age, but an accurate observation that he has completely failed to move with the times and adapt to what modern day rugby union really is.
If Brunel had any fight left in him, he would sacrifice himself for the greater good of the country – but that does not mean he has walk away from the job right now. Plummeting down the world rankings – behind Fiji and Argentina – France can pretty much write off this year’s Rugby World Cup. The apparent ‘Pool of Death’ that England drew now sees them grouped with the ninth and 10th ranked sides in the world in the Pumas and France respectively that should ensure smooth progression to the knockout stages.
So why doesn’t Brunel look to the future? Give Romain Ntamack a prolonged run in the side. End Parra’s stop-start international career and let the promising Antoine Dupont have the freedom of the field. Start Thomas Ramos, a natural full-back, at full-back. Form one of the most formidable tighthead partnership in Uini Atonio and Demba Bamba and above all, get away from the one-dimensional play that Bastareaud offers.
Writing off 2019 may prove to be the restoration of France as a serious rugby nation again. They have far too much talent to keep delivering below-par performances, and with a record of 16 defeats in their last 20, something needs to change. That starts with the head coach, and the least that Brunel can do is prepare France for future – one that no longer holds a place for him.
Back-row crisis is robbing us of the real Scotland
A key factor in Scotland’s promising campaign last year was the impact that their back-row had at the breakdown. It proved to be the downfall of England in the Calcutta Cup, and also helped them record a rare victory over France.
Yet as Gregor Townsend spends the next 12 days preparing his side to try and conquer the French on their own soil for the first time in 20 years, he does so without any of the three breakdown workhorses that would walk into this team. The news on Monday that Ryan Wilson will miss the rest of the championship sees him join John Barclay and Hamish Watson on the sidelines, and when you consider that another five potential replacements are also absent, you wonder how on earth Townsend still has natural options to call on at 6, 7 and 8.
The silver lining is that he looks to have discovered quite the player in Jamie Ritchie, but without the talents of Wilson, Watson and Barclay, it was no surprise to see Ireland make hay at the breakdown that produced the front-foot ball needed to get back to winning ways at the weekend.
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