The French show their hand


It was Sunday morning. As I sped through the beautiful French countryside from Paris en route to Toulon, home of the three times European champions, there has been much to reflect on during this rearranged European Rugby weekend. It was Sunday morning. As I sped through the beautiful French countryside from Paris en route to Toulon, home of the three times European champions, there has been much to reflect on during this rearranged European Rugby weekend.

I have no doubt that French pride was dented by the World Cup performances, although they were not expecting very much it has to be said. Moreover, a flood of top overseas stars have signed up to the Top 14, and they’ll take time to integrate. Then there were the Paris attacks which caused many to take on board a degree of perspective and provided inevitable distractions.

However, this weekend Racing 92, Stade Francais and Clermont have bared their teeth a little and these three European giants are now building some momentum after a slow, if not underwhelming, start to their campaign. I am struck by the vibrant atmosphere in their stadia; they love to chant, wave flags and bang their drums. The atmosphere reminded me of the Parc de Princes in its pomp when the French National team was running riot, something that doesn’t happen much these days. Of course, a high percentage of French league players are foreign imports, which has created a problem and new coach Guy Noves faces an uphill challenge. As an ex-Top 14 coach of many years standing at Toulouse, he will know that he has to convert French club strength into National performance without derailing domestic and European ambitions. Welcome to the world of delicate negotiations and the same challenges currently facing the RFU. It all comes down to good rugby decisions made by the right people based on known priorities and a shared ambition. Sounds easy doesn’t it!

As Toulon prepared for their crunch showdown with Bath, Mourad Boudjellal publicly questioned French Salary cap regulations. Sound familiar? This club is looking to further its ambitions wherever it can find a challenge. The rugby world will have to embrace this, as there are many clubs in Europe, not least their weekend opponents, who think along the same lines.

French awakening

Back to the Stade Francais v Munster match; make a note of the name Sekou Macalou – 20 years old, can play flanker or wing and scored a blinding 40 metre try on Saturday night as well as mixing it with the Munster strongmen up front. He is a man for the future and I can’t wait to see him progress. We were on our feet applauding long before he touched the ball down. Together with the wise heads of Parisse and Machenaud, perhaps the current champions of France, misfiring badly in the early months, will start to come good.

The Munstermen are rebuilding, and they accept that, as are Leinster, who interestingly have just returned to the top of Pro 12. Donal Lenihan, the former Irish International now respected journalist, wrote an article suggesting that the Irish provinces aren’t so well placed to do well in Europe anymore because of National priorities and because their top players now have to perform in Pro 12 as well as Europe and Internationally. It’s the same story everywhere, as the same assets – the players – are being leveraged, stretched and depreciated over time! Relative lack of depth and player fatigue will continue to be an issue in Ireland, as for Wales and Scotland, although for the latter all the resource is collected in two regions, so longterm that looks a good, concentrated place to be. Glasgow simply haven’t got going this year post World Cup (aka Bath and Stade Francais) with more than 20 of their squad involved so a good position in Pro 12 will be the limit of their capabilities this year.

While some of the interest in England is on Bath’s opportunity to put a marker down for themselves as much as anyone else, the status quo in the Premiership is intact with Leicester’s new found flexibility paying dividends, Exeter continuing their impressive form and the first defeat of Saracens season being much more a case of Harlequins’ revival than any weakness in the Champions. An ‘Aussie Kiss’ for the in form George Kruis didn’t help them in the early moments of the match, but will hopefully not prevent him progressing to the English starting line up for the Six Nations.

A word for Andy Farrell’s move to Ireland. It’s a smart decision by Joe Schmidt, and all rugby lovers will have noted carefully that he will be the defence coach only. One of the memories of the World Cup was the unravelling of Ireland’s defence against the fast-moving Argentinians as their hopes once again evaporated at the Quarter Final stage. If he can fix that, there will be many a Guinness lifted to him, although the backs coaching can be left to others. The fact that Eddie Jones will coach England’s backs himself doesn’t necessarily mean that there aren’t any good backs coaches around, but it does show that the Northern Hemisphere has prioritised process, physicality and phases far too much – the All Blacks and Australians meanwhile look on, amused and most likely bemused!

Toulon/Bath

Unbelievably, it was my first visit to the Stade Felix-Mayol, scene of Wilkinson’s heroics and where a legion of foreign and domestic stars have graced the turf to devastating effect. A beautiful spring day (in January) greeted two sides chock full of Internationals but strangely hesitant and misfiring so far this season. The rather gladiatorial and traditional environment seemed to suit the occasion; both teams throwing themselves at each other with real cut and thrust and a hint of desperation. This was a contest of real bite and edge, enthralling even with no tries. Both backlines threatened to cut loose but it never quite happened. Bath’s all International runners looked classy but Toulon scramble defended brilliantly, and the much maligned Michalak came on to make a real difference in the second half. Rather like Charlie Hodgson, Freddie has great timing in his passing and frequently set his outside backs on a run. An ageing Ma Nonu, Bastareaud’s lack of pace and Juan Smith’s inability to complete a 2 on 1 with Habana free outside him ensured that penalties were the only reward. Quite how Bath didn’t score a couple was beyond me; a little unlucky and a lack of real conviction 20 yards out, the sign of a team still finding itself. They will be proud of their efforts, rightly, and with one point tucked away are still in Europe – just.

Some way up the road, Ulster’s narrow dramatic win at Oyonnax gives them a real chance of the Quarter Finals – they are flying under the radar but dangerous if they make it through.

My French sojourn ended at Marseilles Airport late on Sunday night ,scrambling to get back to a chilly London but enthused by a sense that the French are coming to the European party.

Two more heavyweight European weekends await.