Rugby: The foreign legion prop up Les Bleus

By John Daniell

France begin their three-test series against New Zealand at Eden Park on Saturday. John Daniell looks at the controversy over too many foreigners in their rugby weakening the national side - and what Les Bleus are doing about it.

French rugby have apparently decided that, if they can't beat the clubs, they'll join them. At the announcement of the team to tour New Zealand, coach Philippe Saint-André deadpanned that the three new selections who emanate from South Africa and Fiji would be receiving the words to La Marseillaise.

Samoan-born Kiwi Alex Tulou would have made it four new foreigners (as well as South African loose forward Antonie Claasen, first capped in the 2013 Six Nations) had he not played a few minutes of sevens rugby for New Zealand. He would have joined the world's first French Fijian, winger Noa Nakaitaci, 1.96m, 111kg loose forward Bernard Le Roux and fellow South African prop, the 1.87m, 120kg Daniel Kotze.

The riches luring all-comers to the French club game are increasingly problematic for a national side whose home-grown talent struggle to find the path to higher honours.

The French argue that every other team has their ringers - England's Manu Tuilagi and Wales' Toby Faletau are often cited, alongside persistent muttering about the number of Pacific Islanders who play for New Zealand. These players are eligible, so why shouldn't they pick them?

"Because it's not right," says former French centre Richard Dourthe, one of the heroes of the French victory over the All Blacks at Twickenham in 1999, now manager of Dax. "I'm not dead set against the idea of picking foreigners for France - guys like [South African] Peter de Villiers and [New Zealander] Tony Marsh brought something to the team. But you don't pick foreigners just because you can - you have to really need them. Either they're something special, or there isn't any other option.

"Claasen and [Bernard] Le Roux are good players but we've got plenty of backrowers - you open a cupboard at a decent club and half a dozen guys of their ability fall out. Nakaitaci doesn't have a starting spot for his club, nor does [Daniel] Kotze. If you could take someone like Nalaga [Clermont and Fiji winger Napolioni Nalaga], fine, because he's a genuine heavyweight in the Lomu category and we just don't have wingers with that kind of profile. But for these guys, there are French players in the same position who are as good and who have the same potential."

The selection of Nakaitaci, the former Fiji under-20 player who turned down the chance to play for the Fijian test team last November in the hope of playing for France, looks like the thin end of the wedge. FFR officials have already signalled their intention to pick other young Pacific Island players who have come into French academies and are now eligible for selection under the letter - but not the spirit - of the law.

Bolstering the French sevens squad in view of the 2016 Rio Olympics is a particular focus. The possibility of playing for France is being used as an added incentive to attract young players from developing nations, according to one agent.

Although those involved with Island rugby are furious at the prospect of players they have developed playing under a flag of convenience and despite one high ranking IRB representative telling the Herald on Sunday that "most of the problems in world rugby come from France", an official spokesman for rugby's ruling body said simply that: "The area of player movement is complex and often based on economic and lifestyle choices. We continue to work closely with all stakeholders to review our regulations."

However, the French are struggling to come to terms with the market forces unleashed on their domestic competition. Toulon won the European Cup and qualified for last night's Top 14 final with a run-on team comprising only four Frenchmen. None of the semifinalists fielded a French tighthead prop in their starting 15 and only one - Castres - had a French first five-eighth.

Last week, after analysing his side's semifinal defeat, Toulouse coach Guy Noves came up with an uncomplicated new strategy: buy more foreigners. He explained that "you need time to work on young players, and we no longer have time".

Promising Toulon flanker Pierrick Gunther was in the French squad for last November's tests; by April, he had fallen off the selectors' radar because he couldn't even get on to his club's bench after they brought in Danie Roussow and Rocky Elsom to bulk up an already star-studded back row of Chris Masoe (New Zealand), Joe van Niekirk (South Africa) and Fernandez Lobbe (Argentina).

Whatever the complexities at home, a three-test tour of New Zealand, and a midweek game against the Blues, won't be a cakewalk for a team which finished last in the Six Nations.

"Lining up against the All Blacks is always a great honour" says experienced tighthead prop Nicolas Mas. "But we will need to be ready. This is the first time we've played them since the final and they're going to want to show us it was no accident. We have to pick ourselves up after the Six Nations and prove that it was just a blip."

Up front, Mas, hooker Dmitri Szarzewski and captain Thierry Dusautoir are all world class, as is No8 Louis Picamoles, whose low-slung running style invariably takes him over the gain line. At lock, Pascal Pape is out injured but 21-year-old Noumean Sebastien Vahaamahina (2.03m, 126kg) brings ball-handling athleticism to the second row.

His locking partner at Perpignan, Romain Taofifenua, is another big man (2.03m, 114kg) with Pacific roots who has already been capped at 22. Rugby doesn't yet enjoy a big profile in the French Pacific but the rise of these young players has attracted attention and hints at a potentially rich pool of future talent.

Morgan Parra, the goalkicking halfback drafted into first-five at the 2011 World Cup, will be missed after being injured in last weekend's semifinal, as much for his influence on the group as his on-field performance. However, Maxime Machenaud had already replaced him as first choice halfback under Saint-André, whose preferred playmaker is Frederic Michalak, despite playing second fiddle to Jonny Wilkinson at Toulon, where Michalak often comes off the bench as a halfback.

Michalak's late appearance after the final of the Top 14 (along with seven others, he's due to arrive on Tuesday) may hand the No10 jersey to rookie Camille Lopez for the first test if Michalak can't start. Lopez has an astute kicking game but no experience at test or even European Cup level, which marks the 24-year-old from Bordeaux as a target.

As Dourthe says: "Psychologically, those first minutes will be delicate. He's supposed to run the game but he's never played with the guys around him. He has no international experience and, first up, he's playing the All Blacks in New Zealand. Preparing for it mentally is one thing but seconds before the kick off, he'll be on the field actually facing a full-blooded Kapa O Pango."

At which point Saint-André may be regretting leaving the more experienced Francois Trinh-Duc at home, apparently because "he could do with a rest".

Outside Lopez, Wesley Fofana is the player to watch. One of the few Frenchmen to emerge from the Six Nations unscathed, Fofana scored a searing 60-metre solo try against England, beating six tacklers on the way. Mathieu Bastareaud - of Wellington bedside table fame - is back to his bulldozing best. There is a suspicion that the French tendency to emphasise power at club level leaves them vulnerable to the faster tempo of an international game.

Still, no-one needs to be told the French can't be written off. How do they continue to be so unpredictable?

"It's the Latin temperament; we struggle to be clinical in the way that Anglo-Saxon teams are, we feed on emotion, there's a kind of dilettantism," says Dourthe.

"But if the conditions are right, the team is well put together, we can make a jump to that higher level and be competitive. We tend to play to the level of the opposition. Look at 2011 - the same team that lost to Tonga nearly won the final."

The All Blacks also make the French raise their game. After the World Cup final, despite feeling they'd been on the end of some dud calls, the French were genuinely happy with the New Zealand win.

"For us, the All Blacks aren't just the world champions since 2011, they've always been the best in the world."

Dourthe has a final warning: "Just when you think we're dead, that is when we can surprise you. After all, we are French!"

- Herald on Sunday

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