All Blacks: French factor still unknown

By Paul Lewis

France beat Wales on the way to the Grand Slam. Photo / Getty Images
France beat Wales on the way to the Grand Slam. Photo / Getty Images

The French even have a saying for it - plus ca change, plus c'est meme chose (the more things change, the more they stay the same ... ).

Which makes it seem almost logical that it is impossible to discern the character of the French rugby team that will turn up to play Scotland in one of the opening fixtures of the 2011 Six Nations.

Will it be the France of Six Nations and Grand Slam champions last year; of All Black-beating dimensions; the team who have more than any other been the bete noire of New Zealand teams at the World Cup?

Or will it be the team which fell to a horrendous 59-16 hiding to the Wallabies 2010; not to mention having 40 points put on them by Argentina and South Africa in the same year?

French unpredictability is not new. But that weird match at the Stade de France against the Wallabies was.

Level 13-13 at halftime, the match descended into farce as the Wallaby scrum continued going backwards at about the same pace as the Australians kept running in tries.

For the first time, seasoned rugby observers began to question the desire of some French players to represent their country; whether they were more content to play their boring (but highly paid) rugby in France's Top 14 internal competition and the Heineken Cup - which French teams usually dominate, as this season.

The upshot is that France's Marc Lievremont may be the only coach in the Six Nations to be fighting to take his team to the World Cup in September.

Unlikely, perhaps, but there have been rumblings about Lievremont before. Now it looks as though his relentless tinkering, rotation and selection backflips have given rise to the loss of the French dressing room.

There are whisperings that the players feel the coach does not possess some of the technical knowledge he might; training and skills have gaps in them; and, most worryingly, that his man-management has slipped to the extent that players - no longer sure of any kind of permanence in his squad - have given a Gallic shrug within their subconscious.

The coach used 57 players in his first 18 months in charge - almost four entire teams. That makes the All Blacks' 2007 rotation seem like a very small French sausage indeed.

Lievremont responded to the criticism after the Wallaby mauling by adopting a more autocratic approach to preparation.

He has taken over some of the work of backs coach Emile Ntamack and scrum coach Didier Retiere, after admitting he had not given them enough support.

That suggests the French will not be returning any time soon to their mecurial dance-and-dash style of years ago (much missed by rugby fans) and will be clinging even more tightly to the physical, crunching forward-dominated play of the Top 14; with backs used to kick for position and for penalties.

Lievremont said in one recent interview: "This is not a criticism of Ntamack. I left him on his own and I did not give him enough support. They [Ntamack and Retiere] will stay, as they have been for three years. This strategy is not just made up on the hoof, nor is it unrealistic."

Lievremont insists the move has the backing of his players: "If there are sometimes mix-ups because some of the players aren't used to them, that is one thing, but it has been given the thumbs up overall by the players."

In his favour is the fact the French team which was slaughtered by the Australians (who went on to be beaten by England in their best showing of the touring season) was not quite his best XV. It's hard to say the same, however, of the French teams which went down 42-17 to the Boks last June and 41-13 to the Pumas.

Such results point to something being wrong other than just rotation but we will not know more until the French host the Scots in their first Six Nations clash next Sunday morning (NZT).

The Scots, under former England coach Andy Robinson, are regaining much lost ground in spite of being easily dealt with by the All Blacks last year.

Then it's on to the key clash against England at Twickenham on February 26 - the one that will likely decide the competition.

At least Lievremont seems to have selected a strong squad, with no glaring omissions.

Missing, though, is the 'Wally of Wellington', Mathieu Bastareaud, whose strange antics when the French last toured here soured relations between both countries until it was all sorted out.

"I asked him, before November, to improve his physical form and state of mind," said Lievremont. "I wasn't listened to ... there are better [players] today at outside centre than Mathieu Bastareaud."

The squad is strong in the pack, particularly in the back row where there is enormous depth with the likes of skipper Thierry Dusautoir, Fulgence Ouedraogo, Julien Bonnaire, Sebastien Chabal and Imanol Harinordoquy.

The backs include lively halfback Morgan Parra, first five-eighths Francois Trinh-Duc and strength and pace from the centres to fullback with the likes of Damien Traille, David Skrela, Yannick Jauzion, Maxime Mermoz, David Marty, Aurélien Rougerie, Vincent Clerc and Clement Poitrenaud.

They also have the advantage of being less affected by injuries than others, with England, Wales and Ireland the worst off on that score.

But we still won't know which French team will turn up - in Europe or in New Zealand, in September.

England and Wales begin this year's tournament with their Friday night clash in Cardiff. Both are suffering from injury lists that would keep any self-respecting hospital busy.

England are deserved favourites for the tournament - they actually entertained for a bit last year against the All Blacks and the Wallabies - but have been hard hit by injury, particularly to their back five.

Tom Croft was injured in the final game of the autumn series against South Africa, while highly promising lock Courtney Lawes was felled by a knee problem; both are key lineout men. Captain Lewis Moody is also out and his cover, Hendre Fourie, has a calf injury. Another big lock, the 2.01m Dave Attwood, is suspended (as is fullback Delon Armitage).

England's worries got worse when veteran centre Mike Tindall pulled up lame recently. He might be older than some of Billy Connolly's jokes and slower than a three-legged dachshund but Tindall is still the glue in an England backline which showed some creativity and adventure through the likes of fullback Ben Foden, winger Chris Ashton and dashing halfback Ben Youngs.

New Zealanders Riki Flutey and league convert Shontayne Hape could be replacements but England coach Martin Johnson will want Tindall there, especially with the return to fitness of big Welsh and Lions centre Jamie Roberts.

Wales are also pockmarked by injury and coach Warren Gatland caused some to crack smiles when he had a verbal thrust at hot-headed England hooker Dylan Hartley. He is the New Zealand-born frontrower who came in for some close attention by Brad Thorn when Hartley performed a sly elbow drop on All Black skipper Richie McCaw - a deliberate piece of thuggery which went unpunished even as Keven Mealamu was being cited for a head butt in the same game.

England lose key lineout men and what does Gatland do? He attacks what's left of their lineout - Hartley being a shaky thrower - by winding him up that he cracks under pressure and hasn't the stomach for a fight. Still, the Welsh will need more than trash talking. They haven't won a test since their last Six Nations match - and that against Italy. They came close against South Africa but most remember that embarrassing 16-16 draw with Fiji.

They have injury problems too, principally in the front row with props Gethin Jenkins and Adam Jones out, along with halfback Richie Rees (ban), and centres Tom Shanklin and Andrew Bishop.

However, they have a good back row and the advantage of home soil, plus the beginning of an emotional farewell to retiring winger Shane Williams who (with 53 tries) is second only to David Campese (64) in world test try scoring history.

Of the three other contenders, Italy are still Italy; favourites for the wooden spoon. Some say their players' presence in European club rugby will tell this year, although outgoing coach Nick Mallett reckons it will be two or three years yet.

Scotland are on the rise but this year might be too soon - they will upset someone but have two tough away matches which might, as the song has it, send them "homeward, tae think again ...".

Ireland are an ageing side, afflicted with more injury worries than anyone else - although their match against the French will still be a key one.

Their injury list reads: hooker Jerry Flannery, prop John Hayes, winger-centres Shane Horgan and Andrew Trimble, and fullbacks Geordan Murphy and Rob Kearney.

Murphy plays with a young English star, Billy Twelvetrees, in club rugby. He sounds more like a North American Indian but his name is indeed olde English - and has led, perhaps predictably, to Billy being known as '36'.

Try saying Twelvethrees, with an Irish accent, dropping the 'h'. Twelve trees are tirty-six.

The Irish will be glad of 36 points at any stage in this Six Nations.

THE DRAW

Six Nations Schedule
(New Zealand time)

Saturday, February 5
* Wales v England, Cardiff

Sunday, February 6
* Italy v Ireland, Rome
* France v Scotland, Paris

Sunday, February 13
* England v Italy, Twickenham
* Scotland v Wales, Murrayfield

Monday, February 14
* Ireland v France, Dublin

Sunday, February 27
* Italy v Wales, Rome
* England v France, Twickenham

Monday, February 28
* Scotland v Ireland, Murrayfield

Sunday, March 13
* Italy v France, Rome
* Wales v Ireland, Cardiff

Monday, March 14
* England v Scotland, Twickenham

Sunday, March 20
* Scotland v Italy, Murrayfield
* Ireland v England, Dublin
* France v Wales, Paris.

- Herald on Sunday

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