Andrew Alderson

Andrew Alderson is a sport writer for the Herald on Sunday.

Rugby World Cup: The French enigma

The French destroyed England at Eden Park last weekend. Photo / Greg Bowker
The French destroyed England at Eden Park last weekend. Photo / Greg Bowker

Why are the French so, well, French in their enigmatic performances at Rugby World Cups?

Two New Zealanders who have had prominent experiences with French rugby suggest the contradictory ingredients of self-confidence and humiliation are behind the same contradiction that has emerged this year.

The team that lost two pool games went on to blast England out of the quarter-finals last week, just as they dismissed New Zealand from the last eight in 2007 and last four in 1999 and Australia from the semifinals in 1987.

The common theory is France are always capable of one big performance at World Cups but top coach Vern Cotter and former All Black Mike Clamp (who has lived the better part of 25 years in France) have shed further light on why Les Tricolors remain one of the tournament's most anticipated mysteries.

Cotter coached Clermont Auvergne to the French top 14 championship in 2010.

He took the side to the final in his first three years after successful stints with the Crusaders and Bay of Plenty (who secured the Ranfurly Shield under him for the first time in 2004).

The club have offered Cotter a two-year contract extension which he will consider after the World Cup. His decision could depend on tonight's All Blacks/Wallabies result.

He explains the French mindset: "They like to go into matches as underdogs and be humiliated before they respond. They're a proud people with high expectations but they get comfortable quickly. The French often work best reactively. Sometimes they know they can afford to lose; they need to have consequences to get themselves up.

"The French often talk about moments de verite (moments of truth) when they play. That sums up the times when they know everything they do will count towards the result; where they can't afford to fail.

"It didn't surprise me to see them lose to Tonga because there wasn't enough on it. The French don't mind losing when they know they are capable of bouncing back. In fact I watched that 1999 World Cup game the other night [between the All Blacks and France]. New Zealand got hammered physically; the French won the one-on-one contests. They are also capable of so many forms of rugby. They recognise a good blindside, they have fast backs, they have hard forwards and long kickers."

Clamp has owned a surf shop in the south-west town of Biarritz for 19 years.

He married Frenchwoman Sylvie and has based his life there with her and their three children. He played 15 matches for New Zealand in the three-quarters during 1984-85 and five seasons with Biarritz in the late 1980s. He agrees with Cotter.

"Coaches would rant, rave and scream at players. They'd say 'you're useless' and individuals would thrive on the negativity, happy to feel like the worst player in the world. The French like to prove a guy is wrong, whereas New Zealanders generally like to be pumped up on positivity.

"I remember watching some interesting warm-ups. Props would head butt each other until the steam came out their ears. Then they'd sprint into the corridor almost doing forward rolls onto the field; there'd be a couple of scrums and a couple of huge brawls in the first few minutes before you'd settle into some rugby.

"If you are a spectator, one of the most important things to watch is the French national anthem. If their faces are red and patchy it probably means they've been smashing them into walls. It's their way of saying, 'Gee whizz, we've got a game to play here'. If they're looking blasé then generally the result is terrible. It's a bit different now I think, once they started bringing in the odd psychologist."

Cotter, who also played several years in France, agrees: "Years ago games wouldn't start until players had been treated for scraps they'd had prior to going on the field." Former All Black coach Alex Wyllie has often told the tale of seeing French forwards head butting each other in the toilets before a test.

Despite the self-flagellation both agree the French rugby player generally has a wealth of self-confidence: "Le coq [rooster] on their emblem is the perfect example of how they are," Clamp says. "The typical Frenchman walks around with his chest puffed out, like he owns the world. It is a terrific way to express oneself. In response, the best way to play them is to kick them up the arse so le coq runs back to its pen and hides.

"At Clermont, Vern Cotter must have an X factor to be able to channel that passion into something constructive. It's hard to do."

Cotter says the French should never be underestimated physically.

"Their success is based on a long, tough domestic competition. Rugby's a man's game in France; very physical. They build hard, powerful athletes who know their way around a paddock when they can be playing from August to June. They know when to lift their game."

- Herald on Sunday

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