By Nick Cain
FRANCE have been written off by most Six Nations pundits because of their decline over the last decade, with just one title (a Grand Slam) to their name way back in 2010. Add to that the arrival of yet another coach, Jaques Brunel, after the sacking of Guy Noves in December after a now traditionally dismal autumn showing, and the picture of French disarray going into the 2018 campaign is complete.
The glaring oversight in this dismissal of the French is that four of the eight quarter-finalists in the European Cup – Racing 92, La Rochelle, Clermont and Toulon – are French Top 14 clubs, and that they provide 19 of the 32-man squad announced by Brunel.
The largest single club contingent belongs to Racing 92, who, with nine players, contribute almost a third of the squad. That Racing tranche, which includes the inspirational scrum-half Maxime Machenaud, along with another five from French champions Clermont, should give Brunel, 64, a head start when it comes to pulling the squad together.
Brunel, right, is an old Six Nations hand, having been a France assistant coach from 2001 to 2007, and Italy coach for five years (2011-16), as well as drawing from a wealth of experience at club level having coached Auch, Colomiers, Pau, Perpignan, and, until his appointment as national coach, Bordeaux-Begles.
Brunel’s stint at Perpignan had the additional advantage of overlapping with Guilhem Guirado, the incumbent French captain, when the all-action hooker first came to prominence. Guirado has not wasted any time in pointing out the benefits of his previous working relationship with Brunel from their time together at the club.
“I know Jacques from Perpignan and that’s a great time-saver. I understand his methods, his way of working and what he wants from a team,” Guirado said.
“That can be important for us in the next few weeks and months. It’s been great to have face-to-face meetings (with Brunel) and be honest about the situation.”
“I’ve felt very frustrated and disappointed after the autumn matches but there was no time to dwell on things afterwards. Since then I felt I’ve performed very well for my club (Toulon), so hopefully I can transfer that form to the national team now.”
Guirado also pointed to the form of French clubs in the European Cup, and the young talent in their ranks, as a boost going into the Six Nations: “Our new generation have already shown what they can do in the (European) Champions Cup, and now it’s time to transfer that.”
Brunel has named the precocious 21-year-old Toulon fly-half Anthony Belleau in his squad, while Francois Trinh-Duc drops out of the running altogether with Bordeaux-Bègles’ teenage fly-half Matthieu Jalibert preferred instead.
In total Brunel promoted six uncapped players to the squad, with dynamic La Rochelle loose-head Dany Priso, Lyon flanker Felix Lambey, Racing 92 tight-head Cedate Gomes Sa, Castres full-back Geoffrey Palis, and Bordeaux-Bègles’ powerful back-row carrier Marco Tauleigne all included.
Mathieu Bastareaud was originally included in the French squad but, due to his three-week suspension, bustling Stade Francais centre Jonathan Danty takes his place. The other big omissions are Montpellier No.8 Louis Picamoles and Bordeaux-Begles scrum-half Baptise Serin.
By contrast there is a return to the France squad for Clermont scrum-half Morgan Parra, while Saracens hooker Christopher Tolofua is the only non-French based player included.
The avuncular Brunel is a methodical operator rather than a tub-thumper, and there have been no signs of him borrowing from the “up-and at-’em” almanac favoured by Eddie Jones. Instead, he is talking building blocks, with restoring French confidence the cornerstone.
Brunel said at the London launch of the NatWest sponsored tournament this week: “We are in a very specific situation– we need to create a team and give it confidence because we want to be contenders.”
He elaborated: “I can’t really think of a team as individuals, we are a sport in which we need all the players to buy in to be able to create a team. We want to be contenders throughout the tournament. We’re fully focused on the first match, but we’ll try to be contenders.”
If that is right at the bottom of the low key register it is because Brunel has not only invested his playing squad with youth, but also his coaching staff, with three recently retired French internationals, Julien Bonnaire (line-out), Sebastien Bruno (scrum) and Jean-Baptiste Elissalde (backs) named as his assistant coaches.
With Bruno, who is Lyon forwards coach, the only one of the three currently employed by a club, Bonnaire one season retired, and Elissalde having had an unsuccessful coaching baptism with Toulouse, their lack of a track record has already been criticised.
The French Federation (FFR) sees it differently. Their Press release trumpeted: “This innovative backroom staff mixes skills present at the hearts of our clubs…it will be kept in place and boosted through to the 2019 World Cup. It is the first step for French rugby to rally around the French team.”
Given that the buck now stops with him, Brunel’s tone is more cautious: “The difficulty in the circumstances is that I’ve had to build a staff in a very short time, but the preparation of the team, they’ve still had the same amount of time, so there’s not much change.”
He added: “We’re having to have different ambitions with a much higher potential than when I was Italy coach. Given that the conditions and time are quite limited, our ambition is to compete with the best teams. One of which is Ireland, our first opponent.
“The main change has been with the staff, and we also have a new squad with young players. People have come and gone, but it’s basic – the first thing we have to do is create a common ambition and a common story.”
Brunel knows that the best way to start that story is to beat Ireland in Paris on Saturday.
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