Wednesday, February 17, 2010

Can anyone stop France's charge towards a Grand Slam?

Be afraid, be very afraid. French rugby is stirring and a giant awakes.

It was all very well for France's reinvigorated rugby team to hammer and humiliate the reigning Grand Slam champions Ireland, in Paris on Saturday. But to receive laudatory comments from that notoriously dissatisfied body of opinion known as the French media was another thing altogether.

Thus, we can imagine that French coach Marc Lièvremont (below) probably needed to sit down in a darkened room once he had digested the words of France's great newspapers following his team's 33-10 victory at Stade de France.

"Combat Kings" L'Equipe hailed them. The magisterial Le Monde opined that: "France replied in masterly fashion to the question of what level they are at."

And the rugby bible, Midi Olympique, added: "It was their aggression and breakdown work which were the most impressive aspects of the French performance."

As the Irish captain, Brian O'Driscoll, rightly pointed out: "It was an impressive display, not just from their forwards but an all-round performance."

Since 2004, when they last won a Grand Slam, France's national team has atrophied, stymied by the kind of straitjacket tactics that are currently bedevilling the England team. This has suited the national psyche and characteristics of the French about as well as a glove on a three-fingered man. They have looked ill at ease, out of sync.

But at Stade de France, we saw a different France. For a start, there was a cohesion and balance which had not been apparent before. Forward power is a mighty weapon if it is accompanied by pace, a requisite of the modern game, and a willingness by the pack to set up the backs. Crucially, France appear to have discovered for the first time in years a half-back combination of considerable potential.

Morgan Parra and François Trinh-Duc have brought a quality that has had an ageless appeal to French teams, namely, invention. They can vary their games, which is another crucial facet in modern rugby. This is another of the root causes of England's failings. More propitiously, Parra's goal-kicking was so effective against Ireland, even from long range.

Outside them, Mathieu Bastareaud, a centre who weighs an extraordinary 114kg, could be one of the biggest stars of the next World Cup.

But to counterbalance that, France have beaten the All Blacks and world champions South Africa in the course of the last eight months. Clearly, something is stirring in French rugby and the timing could hardly be better with a World Cup looming next year.

Nor has this transformation been achieved in a nonsensical, cavalier fashion. As the Australian Ewen McKenzie, a former coach of Paris-based club Stade Français and now in charge of the Queensland Reds, says: "Lièvremont has brought a lot of younger players to the fore but he had the skeleton there all the time. He has still got some hard heads – Nallet, Harinordoquy, Pape, Servat, Mas, Jauzion and Poitrenaud – through the key positions of the team.

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