Gregor Paul is the Herald on Sunday's rugby writer

Rugby: French say 'non' to their A-team

France won at Carisbrook in 2009. Photo / Getty Images
France won at Carisbrook in 2009. Photo / Getty Images

The French are up to their old tricks - pushing next year's Top 14 club final into June which will compromise their ability to field their best side for the first of a three-test series against the All Blacks.

France are scheduled to play the All Blacks on June 8, 15 and 22 next year.

The French Federation signed an agreement in 2007 that they would commit to finishing their domestic championship in late May but have just informed the New Zealand Rugby Union the 2013 Top 14 final will be played on June 1, making it unlikely that players from that game will be available for the first test.

The French have proposed that they will bring their squad to New Zealand in two waves.

The first group will set off before the final. The second, which could contain the bulk of their best players, will travel after and inevitably preclude most or all of them from being available for selection until the second test.

New Zealand Rugby Union boss Steve Tew initially told his French counterpart, Pierre Camou, that he was concerned by that arrangement.

The French replied that they did a similar thing in 2009 and that, despite encountering accusations they weren't taking the first test seriously, they won the Carisbrook test 27-22.

Such a marvellously Gallic response may raise a chuckle and an element of 'touche' but it can't mask the growing concern that the June test window, which is critical to the finances of New Zealand rugby, continues to be treated with disdain by the major Northern Hemisphere unions.

The IRB felt they made a breakthrough in late 2009 when it was agreed that rather than have seemingly random and meaningless one-off tests in June, they would revert to an old-school format of a three-test series - which may even pave the way for the touring nation to play midweek games. The move was agreed because the Southern Hemisphere nations were bitter, arguing that they treated the November window with the utmost respect and helped fill stadia across Europe, whereas the northern unions rarely sent all their best players in their June obligations - which is why Six Nations sides had won just two of 23 games in New Zealand since 2003.

The timing of the French club championship was fingered as a major threat to the credibility of the June test window when the IRB met after the 2007 World Cup to tackle a host of problems blighting the game.

At what became known as the Woking Lock-in - a four-day gathering of all the major rugby nations' coaches, executives, medics, sponsors and players - the French agreed they would finish their domestic championship in May.

But their commitment has been patchy and curiously so whenever they are scheduled to play New Zealand in June.

In 2009, they were unable to finish the Top 14 in May as planned, as a rock concert had been booked for Stade Francais.

The NZRU were suspicious at the time but accepted the French proposal to send their players in two stages.

"My sense is they [France] are very serious and committed to honouring the Woking agreement," said Tew in 2009.

That commitment is now questionable.

- Herald on Sunday

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