Little bit of information about yours truly: although I played a little bit of rugby in high school PE (and quite enjoyed it), it wasn’t until I met my current girlfriend that I really got into the sport. Her family is from the south of France, where rugby and competitive scowling are pretty much the go-to things to measure your worth as a human being.
In that light, I’m sure you can all guess the mood she was in last Saturday after what was probably the worst half of rugby Les Bleus have played since grandpa Novès took charge two years ago. Suffice to say that the words putain and merde were used in their various colourful meanings. Not that either of us expected the French to beat New Zealand, but there’s a difference between losing valiantly, as France did last year in the autumn, and the absolute surrender that had just unfolded before our eyes. It made me wonder: where did it all go wrong?
For the record, this piece will not so much be a dissection of that match as it will be a an analysis of the evolution (or rather stagnation) of the state of French rugby over the past years. I cannot promise it will be very funny either. That is, unless you have an extremely masochistic personality.
The problems the current crop is faced with go all the way back to the last decade when France was the dominant nation in European rugby, as Le Quinze won 5 Six Nations and 3 Grand Slam titles in 9 years. Over this period, the FFR and the Top16/Top14 were at an absolute high point and chose not to evolve their internal structures apart from the switch from 16 to 14 teams in the top flight. After all, why fix what isn’t broke, right?
Not quite. Anyone familiar with the phrase “when the business is hot, you can do no wrong; when the business is cold, you can do no right” will see that the problems of France anno 2017 can be found in the 2000s. Whereas the Home Nations teams and clubs invested in fitness programs, dieticians and modern technologies, French rugby rode the high of a golden generation and the associated TV revenue. Meanwhile, the overall public bought the FFR and LNR claim that the Top16/Top14 was the greatest competition in rugby hook, line and sinker.
French rugby never really grew out of this illusion of grandeur. Most casual French fans still believe the Top14 to be the greatest competition in the world. Bernard Laporte’s demand that the French win 3 out of their 4 autumn tests this year really tells you how far removed from reality the FFR’s leadership truly is. Realistically, the final game against Japan looked like the only winnable match for les Bleus beforehand. South Africa’s shaming at the hands of Ireland has made a 2 out of 4 record more likely, but by no means a certainty, considering France were humiliated thrice by the Bokke this summer.
And then there’re the allegations of corruption around Laporte and Montpellier owner Mohed Altrad. Regardless of whether the allegations are true, Laporte’s overall behaviour, arrogance and lack of accountability will have shown anyone looking that the FFR is a rotten institution. In summary, France suffers from an archaic national league, a broken union and a complete and utter lack of realistic expectations. Gallic flair indeed.
Does all that mean that there is absolutely no hope for a French renaissance? Well, not quite. There is a lot of young talent coming through the ranks at the moment. Antoine Dupont, the 20-year old scrum-half who made his first start on Saturday, is a genuinely electric player. Despite his rosy cheeks and baby face, he showed more maturity than any other Frenchman on Saturday. While he’ll inevitably have his ups and downs at his age, he’s the kind of once in a generation player that can be the creative spark France so desperately needs.
Meanwhile, several young players impressed for the French Barbarians in their upset victory over the Maori All Blacks on Friday. Teenagers Romain Ntamack and Matthieu Jalibert were impressive on attack. Toulon lock Swan Rebbadj showed a great work rate, including a crucial charge down which led to the Blue Baa-Baas first try. Tuesday’s second showdown between France and New Zealand, despicable as the sheer nakedness of the greed involved might be, will offer several other young guns, such as Lacroix, Macalou and Priso, a chance to put their hands up for a starting berth against Japan.
Ultimately however, no amount of inherent talent will save France if no fundamental changes are made to the FFR and the Top14. Where the impetus for that change will come from, I quite frankly don’t have the faintest clue. Competitive scowling will probably be involved though. But it is clear to me that, if only to improve the competitiveness of this great sport, rugby would greatly benefit if the French could finally live up to their promise.