State of the Nation: France

Date published: November 5 2015

As we do at the end of a major tournament, we look at the state of affairs in each of the competing nations. Next up, France!

Philippe Saint-André’s catastrophic tenure came to an end in the most embarrassing fashion as France were humiliated 62-13 by New Zealand in the quarter-finals in Cardiff.

In four years in charge, Saint-André never finished in the top half of the Six Nations, and with the exception of a couple of wins over Australia, oversaw the worst run in recent memory.

There were some reasons for optimism heading into the World Cup after warm-up wins over England and Scotland, followed by comfortable progress through the group stages.

That was until the final pool game, when France were completely outplayed by Ireland, before the crushing nine-try loss to the All Blacks.

Even before the tournament, Saint-André’s successor had been named, and it will be long-time Toulouse boss Guy Novès who has the task of turning things around.

Novès has already talked about playing a more entertaining brand of rugby, which would certainly come as a welcome change. But after the loss to New Zealand, Novès and everyone else in French rugby, realises the problems run deeper.

At youth level the basic skills are still not up to scratch, typified by Wesley Fofana and Mathieu Bastareaud probably the worst passing centre combination in the tournament.

The conservative nature of the Top 14 doesn’t help in that sense, and the hope has to be that with his stature in the game, Novès can at least try to change things on that front.

In the more immediate future, backs coach Jeff Dubois should be an improvement on Patrice Lagisquet, and there is a hope that France will at least have some semblance of a game plan.

Novès has talked about bringing young players through, with Fred Michalak, Pascal Papé and Nicolas Mas having all retired, and Thierry Dusautoir expected to follow suit.

There is plenty of talent waiting in the wings. Sébastien Bézy and Baptiste Serin provide two very promising options at scrum-half, while back row duo Yacouba Camara and Sékou Macalou could be in place for the next decade.

Yoann Maestri seems like the most suitable candidate to take over the captaincy, and there is enough quality around for France to at least challenge in the Six Nations.

They have a scrum to compete with anyone, and props Eddy Ben Arous and Rabah Slimani are both very promising, although the depth behind them is a little concerning.

The age-old debate about the fly-half position will return, but the fact that both Bézy and Serin, as well as Morgan Parra, kick goals, means that François Trinh-Duc might come back into the equation. Jules Plisson and Camille Lopez are also in contention, even if the former is currently a little out of sorts.

There are question marks over Novès, who has overseen a decline at Toulouse in recent seasons, but his pedigree remains unrivalled as a four-time Heineken Cup winner and ten-time Top 14 winner.

Toulouse played more conservative rugby in his later seasons, so it remains to be seen whether he will follow through with his initial outline, but for much of his tenure, Toulouse were a joy to watch, so the optimists will hope he can recreate that environment with les Bleus.

French rugby’s problems are very real and go far beyond the national team. An upgrade in coaching staff should have an impact though, and the talent is there for France to be challenging for Six Nations titles once more, even if they remain a distance off the world’s best.