Sunday, 13 March 2011

127. Veni, vidi, puni

13th March 2011. It wasn't Marc Lièvremont's finest hour yesterday. Despite the view held by some critics  that he has the best squad of players in the Six Nations, France somehow contrived to lose 22-21 to the Italians in Rome. (I'd argue with the proposition that France has the best players this season - I think the England squad has come on leaps and bounds since last year.) The multi-talented France XV, winners of last year's Grand Slam, were absolutely hammered only last November by the Wallabies 16-59 (still sounds unbelievable doesn't it?) Then, a couple of weeks ago, they were unable to score a try in a real dog-fight of a match against their old foe England and finished well beaten 17-9 (the score could have been much worse). Yesterday, les Bleus managed to excel themselves by achieving what was previously thought unimaginable - losing to Italy. And all this with the same French team who'd hit the heights last season. To be fair to Italy, they've been steadily improving under coach Nick Mallett since they joined in the fun in 2000 and while they've beaten Scotland and Wales, the Azzurri have been threatening to take a major scalp for the last couple of years.

I think the malaise lies with Lièvremont's quirky selections and the fact that, here we are, with the RWC on the horizon and he still doesn't appear to know his best XV. I was surprised (as in astonished) to see Harinordoquy of all people starting the match on the bench. Harinordoquy - the one player who never lets France down! A truly bizarre decision by the manager whose personal motto appears to be: "Veni, vidi, velcro.." (I came, I saw, I stuck around). 
Will the FFR stand by Marc Lièvremont with the Rugby World Cup in New Zealand only 6 months away? Or will they take decisive action and replace him? There's nothing wrong with the players at France's disposal - it's all to do with the selection and the mentality of the players. I think the FFR would be well-advised to let Marc Lièvremont spend more time with his family and bring in Fabien Galthié. As a respected former player and a currrent rugby commentator I'm sure he has his own views on the squad and appointing him now would give him 6 months to rebuild their confidence. It wouldn't be the ideal build-up to a World Cup but what's the alternative? If they stay as they are, France will be in for a torrid time of it in New Zealand come September. 

I think part of the problem stems from their obsession with "French flair" - this desire to play beautiful running rugby from the back, full of slashing moves that involve running the ball from all angles, keeping it alive whenever possible, with the ball being passed at speed by fast running backs. Personally, I'd be delighted if France could re-discover "French Flair" - as long as it's after the RWC in September! Here's a memory-jogging video for you:

Nothing wrong with "French flair" - except that it's a fifteen man game and forwards have their place too. There's an element of national pride involved here too - they wish to play in their own style - a style that owes nothing to Anglo-Saxon realism. For example, they often try to run the ball out of defence when a kick is much the safer option. I know I'm in danger of lurching into cliché here, but in my view (strictly armchair) they should play percentage rugby, ie, what's in front of them and eschew the flashy, high risk moves that look spectacular if they come off but lead nowhere if they fail. Rugby at the highest level is about winning. (just a minute while I adjust my cushions!) As the ever-pragmatic England manager Martin Johnson is fond of reminding his players, "It's not like ice skating - there are no points for artistic impression." I think les Bleus would do well to bear that in mind.

A big match for England this afternoon. Scotland will be looking to do an "Italy" and will be seeking to imposing their traditional hard driving hard rucking style on the game. I'm expecting a bruising encounter with England cranking up the pressure in the second half to win.
Sunday 6.15pm.. England beat Scotland 22-16 in what was a hard fought must-win match.  Scotland are always fired up when they play England and today was no different. By contrast, England looked positively somnolent and sluggish from the 'off' - they all looked like they'd had a good lunch - and were unable to impose their game on the Scots who'd raised their game to the point where they could arguably have taken all the points. I thought there was a forward pass in the build up to England's try and also Scotland were unlucky to have John Barclay sin-binned. He'd been getting up the referee's nose with his constant questioning of every decision so he wasn't given much leeway. A question on sin-binning in general - if a player is yellow carded, does the clock timing his 10 minutes absence out of the match stop when play and the match clock is stopped? (as when the ref was himself injured and substituted)
Tom Croft flying in for his try
It was odd watching England today - right from the kick off they played as though the match was going to be a routine win for them. It was anything but. Scotland were noticeably sharper and more aggressive. England needed a leader on the field who would drive them on and get them fired up. With only one game against Ireland in Dublin next week standing between them and a long-awaited Grand Slam, Martin Johnson will rip into them next week during training. I'd like to see more of the 6'7" (200cm) 18 stone (115kg) Matt Banahan in action - he made a mess of poor old Kelly Brown when he came on in the second half in place of Mike Tindall. It'll be a brave man who forecasts the outcome of the Ireland - England game as Ireland will have been taking notes. It has much potential to be a banana skin game!

15th March 2011. France coach Marc Lièvremont has made six changes to his Six Nations squad to face Wales on Saturday. Out go Poitrenaud, Thion, Chabal, Jauzion, Marconnet & Rougerie. Huget will start from the bench. The starting line-up will be Médard, Clerc, Marty, Traille, Palisson, Trinh-Duc, Parra, Harinordoquy, Bonnaire, Dusautoir, Nallet, Pierre, Mas, Servat & Domingo. The Welsh will be fired up for this match as there's an outside chance that they could still win the championship. Expect another dog-fight. The forecast? Too close to call but it could well be a win for the Welsh (not my favourite team by any means but who are a well-deserved second in the Six Nations table). If France were to lose, I think the FFR's hand would be forced with regard to Lièvremont. The knives are being sharpened.

Now in case you're sitting there wondering what all the fuss is about, have a look at this selection of some great tries that have been scored in the Five/Six Nations Rugby tournament over the years..

My clear favourite is that last one scored by Wales.

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