As we do after every major tournament, we look at the state of affairs in each of the competing nations. First up, it's France.
As we do after every major tournament, we look at the state of affairs in each of the competing nations. First up, France.
Failure. Abject failure.
A Wooden Spoon – France's first in the six-team era and only their second in 44 years – has resulted critics of the pre-tournament favourites calling, in vain, for Philippe Saint-AndrÃ©'s head.
This time last year we came to the conclusion that fourth place had to be regarded as a failure considering that just a few months earlier France had been in a World Cup Final. Twelve months on, and we could almost re-publish last year's review of France's campaign since, once again, unimaginative tactics and dubious selections left French fans feeling more than a little frustrated.
Except this time there is a crucial difference. Unlike during PSA's maiden Six Nations, in 2013 France didn't have an ultra-experienced bench featuring the likes of William Servat to save the day in the last half hour of close contests. In fact, the French replacements must carry the blame for the most disappointing periods of play in their campaign: the final-quarter capitulations at Twickenham and in Rome.
Few would have predicted such a poor showing after France's all-conquering displays in November. One well-known and highly-respected former international coach believes those results had more to do with the tired legs of the southern hemisphere tourists than the quality of France's performances. In retrospect, the unconvincing win over a Samoan side full of northern-hemisphere based players as well as Argentina's hiding in Dublin would lend weight to that argument.
For his part, Saint-AndrÃ© has pointed an accusing finger at the Top 14, and rightly so.
I'm not referring to his comments about too many foreigners occupying in key positions because some of those have been taken out of context and exaggerated. The real issues are the workloads imposed on French players and, more importantly, the current player availability agreement between the national federation and the clubs.
I'm no fan of PSA's tactical approach to the game but he certainly has a case when complaining about the limited preparation time afforded to the French staff. If the XV de France's fortunes are to improve, massive change is needed in the management of their Test players.
In essence, the club v country power struggle has resulted in France's authorities orchestrating a huge disadvantage for their national side.
Whereas other countries work with squads of 30 or 32 players until at least the Wednesday before each Test, France's coaches are only allowed to call up the matchday 23. If a player is struggling with injury and is unable to train, the coaches may not call up a replacement unless the injured player is released, even if that player is likely to recover in time for the weekend. The result is that the team often cannot do drills properly because they simply don't have enough players.
On a recent television chat show, forward's coach Yannick Bru lamented the situation where Scotland were able to do training sessions with 20 forwards while les Bleus only ever have a maximum of 13 at their disposal. Add the inevitable injury or two to the mix and it is impossible to do basic things like practice line-outs against real opposition rather than imaginary jumpers.
While England's players are not allowed to play for their clubs 13 days before a Test, the French staff often receive a bruised and battered rabble at the airport on a Sunday morning following a weekend of Top 14 games, just six days before the following Saturday's Test. (This season's Top 14 Final is on the Saturday preceding the first Test of the June tour of New Zealand).
The situation is farcical.
Negotiations are underway to improve the national team's working conditions but considering the weight France's clubs pull and the fact that LNR president Paul Goze is in favour of the ludicrous idea of expanding the national league to 16 teams, further cluttering the calendar and increasing workloads, just how much will change remains to be seen.
Blaming the prevalence of ageing foreigners in the Top 14 is disingenuous because there is no lack of quality French (or French-qualified) players. Perplexing as PSA's persistence with FrÃ©dÃ©ric Michalak at fly-half was, those blaming the pivot for France's woes would do well to recall the numerous times he has been a match-winner in the 10 jersey for France, Toulouse, the Sharks and now Toulon. He didn't turn bad overnight. The debate over whether Michalak or FranÃ§ois Trinh-Duc – who is an equally talented playmaker – directs traffic for les Bleus seems almost irrelevant unless France can sort out the deeper-seated issues within the national structure.
There is as much work to be done in the boardroom as on the pitch.
By Ross Hastie