France must conclude search for identity

Date published: November 10 2016

The French national side has been searching for its own unique playing style for many years now. Ahead of their match against Samoa on Saturday, we take a look at what coach Guy Novès and his 32 men can do to recover a truly French rugby identity.

Over the past five years, the performance of Les Bleus might be described as middling. They have won just 23 of their 52 matches since November 2011.

The truth is, France have the individual talent to win big games. Without its own identity though, the French side will not achieve the success this talent deserves – a major problem being consistency. Take their tour to Argentina, for example. France lost 30-19 one week and won 27-0 the next.

When France click, they have the potential to play world-class rugby. It just doesn’t seem to click all that often.

Some say France’s lack of success could be due to the strength of the Top 14. Perhaps the loyalty of French club rugby’s supporters outshines interest in the international game.

Christophe Moni, an ex-France international, took a more cynical view. On Eurosport show ‘Les Tontons Flankers’ he said clubs take precedence over the national side ‘for financial reasons’, and the Top 14 has been compared with the English Premier League in the past. In their respective sports, both are where the money is.

At €10 million (£8.9 million), the Top 14 salary cap is almost £2 million higher than that of the Premiership. What’s more, Top 14 clubs are renowned for finding ways around the cap. Is this the reason why both the England football and France rugby teams have been a disappointment in recent years?

It all comes down to this question of identity. Top 14 sides seem to click in a way that the national side cannot. Every weekend, French clubs give us exciting tries born out of impressive displays of running rugby. But players cannot seem to reproduce this when they’re in the blue shirt. There is a missing cog in the French machine. Many say this cog is a decent and reliable fly-half.

Arguably the last time France beat New Zealand with real security at number ten, in 1999, it was the fly-half who stole the show, as Christophe Lamaison scored 28 of France’s 43 points that day.

A historically problematic position for France doesn’t look set to find a solution for Guy Novès any time soon. After sending Jules Plisson home from the training camp on Tuesday, Novès’ is left with one fly-half: François Trinh-Duc, who will get Saturday’s match underway off the back of some shaky club performances.

The instability of his move to Toulon has meant he’s not made any great impact on the club’s game so far. The number 10 does have some strengths; the length of his kicking game has improved, for example. Yet he lacks the consistency to be called ‘reliable’.

The form fly-half in the first ten rounds of the Top 14 has been Camille Lopez. In fact, the Clermont trio of Parra, Fofana and Lopez has played a major role in the club’s dominance so far this season. Yet Fofana is the only one to have been selected for the France XV.

It could be that Novès has made some selection errors, but he hasn’t got it all wrong. Speaking to Rugbyrama, he expressed the need to develop a truly French style. The France coach referenced New Zealand. He said that although the All Blacks have lost many key players in recent years, they still play the same rugby.

Novès wants the plays they go through in training to ‘become an automatic reflex’ for his players. If they achieve this, he hopes he would be able to switch every player on the field without it affecting the style of play.

By putting more emphasis on the team, rather than the individual, Novès could also solve the infamous fly-half issue. If the 15 men on the field play as one French unit, the lack of a world-class fly-half will be less significant. In fact, individual talent will cease to be the most important factor in selection.

If France’s head coach is as committed to the search for a French identity as he says he is, he will select only the players who are willing and able to pick up his ‘automatic reflexes’. This could explain why Parra and Lopez have been left out; they simply did not fit into Novès’ new French order, rightly or wrongly.

Admittedly, selection woes aside, France should have no trouble against Samoa on Saturday. They have met three times and on all three occasions France won convincingly. Ahead of matches against Australia and New Zealand, though, it seems the only hope for les Bleus is to adopt the style français laid down for them by their coach.

by Becky Grey