FRANCE’S shambolic Six Nations campaign has been one of the great sub-plots of this rugby season. It started with the surrender of a 16-0 half-time lead to lose the first game of the Championship at home to Wales, with second-row Sébastien Vahaamahina admitting afterwards that he only found out that he had taken over captaincy of the team during the second half when he was advised by the match official.
“It was the referee, Wayne Barnes, who came to see me on a penalty to ask me my choice,” Vahaamahina said. “I told him to address the captain; he said it was me. The staff did not warn me.”
Then there was that complete capitulation against England last time out, followed by some cutting criticism from half-back partners Morgan Parra and Camille Lopez directed towards the coaching team.
Les Bleus have been accused of being disorganised, ill-disciplined and out of date. The whole fabric of the French game has come under the microscope and fears have been voiced from across the rugby spectrum that one of the sport’s great powers – a dominant force in terms of player numbers and money – is in danger of a catastrophic and irreversible fall from grace.
What they said –
Morgan Parra: “I think that we are capable of doing what the English do, but are we working on this during training? I think we don’t work on it enough, even not at all. Yet these are very simple things that are today part of high-level rugby. We can do this. But do we work on it? No.”
Camille Lopez: “We are the first to be at fault, us the players, since we are on the field. But I think it is not just us, and we are not alone in this disaster.”
But Scotland head coach Gregor Townsend says that it would be incredibly naive to dismiss the threat France pose at this stage. On the contrary, he believes they are at their most dangerous when they are being written off, which means that Scotland’s trip to Paris this weekend – and quest to pick up a first win there since Townsend himself was pulling the strings from stand-off back in 1999 – is something akin to toying with an unexploded bomb.
“I recall in the 2011 World Cup, from reports coming out of the group they had stopped talking to the coach and the players were doing their own thing … and they should have won the World Cup that year,” he pointed out. “They were the better team in the final, they played really well. That is what we can expect from a French team that is written off and under pressure. They will produce a really good performance.
“That is part of the nature of French rugby,” added Townsend, who spent five seasons in total playing club rugby across the channel during his heyday with Brive [1998-2000], Castres [2000-02] and Montpellier [2005-05]. “It is a different culture to the one we have in the UK, that often brings the best out of them.”
Head coach Jacques Brunel is denying it, but that criticism from Lopez and Parra [who was vice-captain of the side] appears to have cost them their place in the team, with 22-year-old Antoine Dupont coming in at scrum-half for his first Six Nations start, and his 20-year-old Toulouse club-mate Romain Ntamack (a member of the France team which won the U20 World Championship last summer) being handed the number ten jersey for the first time.
There is clearly a lack of experience there, but Townsend’s own coaching career has been forged on his belief in giving players an opportunity to sink or swim.
If you are good enough, you are old enough
“You go from cohesion with half-backs who have real experience in Parra and Lopez, to then going for cohesion with Toulouse half-backs, so they are very logical selections based on form,” he argued. “When Dupont came on against England, he played very well. He showed his spirit and his ability when the team was losing. He tried to take the game to the opposition and that’s what you want in your players. He is one of the best 9s in the world just now. He made five line-breaks against England when he came off the bench. He is such an exciting talent.
“Romain Ntamack is obviously coming through from under-20s last year, playing with a team that’s playing with a lot of confidence in Toulouse, playing really exciting rugby. So, they’re as much of a danger as playing against experienced half-backs.
“They’ve gone for experience throughout (other areas of the team). Their captain is very experienced. You’ve got Vahaamahina, Louis Picamoles, Mathieu Bastareaud and Yoann Huget – there’s a group of players who I would imagine have around 400 caps between them. So, it’s a dangerous French side with some young players coming through very quickly, and with some experience right through the spine.”
“I think their pack is more mobile than the pack they picked against Wales. At tight-head, they’ve got a young and very mobile prop in Demba Bamba; Felix Lambey is a really mobile second-row; and they’ve gone for more of a two open-sides with Arthur Iturria and Wenceslas Lauret in the back-row – so, whether that’s because of the rugby they want to play or the threat that we pose, they’re looking for more mobility.
“But I don’t think they’ll change the way they play, which is high off-loads, ambitious rugby. They pick players to go out and make decisions on the ball. So, we’re expecting a really dangerous attacking team.”
Townsend, of course, has not his own troubles to seek this week, with the head injury suffered by Finn Russell last Sunday the latest in a long line of set-backs he has faced when trying to rustle together something approaching his strongest possible team. When prompted, the coach expressed his frustration that his star stand-off was playing a game on the Sunday before a Six Nations Test match, but, ultimately, that’s the reality of modern professional rugby. Russell is being handsomely recompensed for playing his club rugby in France and the Scottish Rugby Union cannot afford to match that sort of salary, so they need to live with the fact that they are not calling the shots.
“When they [a non-Scottish club] have signed a player, they’ve signed him for all the games outwith the international window that he’s available for, and, ultimately, it’s their choice,” acknowledged Townsend. “If they feel they need to play him they understand the risks of playing two Test matches, then an intense club game, then a Test match and whether he’s going to play between rounds three and four who knows. But it was going to be seven weeks of high intensity rugby and it’s their choice. I don’t think there would be a case for speaking to an individual club and having a different contract. That certainly can’t apply in England. All the clubs have to sign up to an agreement and there can’t be separate deals made.”
All Townsend can do is look forward positively at the opportunity Scotland’s injury woes has presented, with Pete Horne being handed another opportunity to show that he can run the show from stand-off.
“I remember his first game at ten for Scotland against Italy, I thought that for 75 minutes he was going to get man of the match,” said Townsend. “He obviously had a kick at the end where he went for a bit too much distance when he was cramping up a bit, but he’s shown everyone that he can play very well at 10 at international level.
“He’s probably our most organised and best prepared player in the squad. He’ll know everything about the French – what they’ve been doing, their individual players, he’ll be able to talk through our game-plan in minute detail. That’s a huge asset when you’re playing at 12 to help a 10 out in his game, and that’s what he’s shown when he’s played outside of Finn over the last few years. Bringing that experience and knowledge to 10 will, I believe, be important this week.
“We have a squad of players, a way of playing, that can put any team under pressure. We have a real belief in the group of players we’ve selected this week, and we’ve also got evidence of players stepping up when they’ve been given that opportunity to do so. Blair Kinghorn showed it recently, and I remember the November Tests 2017 when players like Darryl Marfo and Jamie Bhatti were involved for the first time and stepped up to play really well. Byron McGuigan got man-of-the-match after being called up in the warm-up when Stuart Hogg picked up an injury. So, we’re expecting the same again from our players this weekend.”