RWC Build-Up: Our Neighbours Prepare

Some things in life are hard to predict.

 Insurance was invented because of this. Sports gambling is so exciting because of this. Being French is only comprehensible when you accept this and throw conventional thinking out of the window. Indeed nothing is harder to predict than French rugby.

So when I decided I was going to assess the preparation of our 6 Nations rivals I had to get the perplexing Gallic questions out of the way first. I had to consider the preposterous and the perplexing.

 I needed help.

I needed to understand those that dip bread in hot chocolate for breakfast and consider drunken fans in fancy dress running out onto narrow parts of a mountain road as part of the Tour De France’s ‘charm’. I needed a man as unpredictable but as strangely affable.

No wonder, then, I chose an internationally capped Prop to be my guide. A Scottish one. One who could cook you dinner; drive your HGV for you; talk at length about property development and; one that only answers to the name Biggers.

“There has been concern, discontent and niggles concerning the French preparation,” Narbonne’s Craig Smith obliges to tell me. “The fans didn’t like losing Chabal and then [Lievremont] picking Ralph Lakafia, a young back row from Biarritz, in his initial squad.

“There was also a bit of a murmur when Lievremont left out the Toulouse backs of Jauzion, Fritz and Poitrenaud. Especially centre Jauzion.”

As a firm fans favourite wherever he has played and a man that seems to know everyone you have ever met, I believe Scotsman Smith when he informs me that there are rumblings of unrest in France. Frenchmen are used to taking the sublime and the ridiculous in stride but even they must be starting to question Marc Lievremont’s tact in his 4th year in charge. His first World Cup could well be his last.

The problem is that the French could handle their unpredictability because it would often bear high valued fruit. In ’87 they were World Cup finalists playing their own brand of rugby. In 1999 they turned a game against the All Blacks on its head to Final once again. In 2007 they again met New Zealand as now-Captain Thierry Dusautoir tackled his team to a famous 20-18 victory.

It is history and hope that looks to be warming French fans now, though, rather than form and trust.

Last season Edinburgh born fly-half Fraser Gillies told me, whilst in Racing Metro’s academy, that the French respect skill and high-pressure risks that wow people. Unexpected performance under pressure. It appears as if even Lievremont has stopped taking risks and started panicking.

Smith reveals such cracks to me. “The other thing that caused a bit of concern was the amount of players that were injured and hadn’t played for a while or who might not be fit enough in time to play,” before notifying me that; “They played a game amongst themselves last Sunday in Perpignan, behind closed doors. They have had a lot of niggling injury problems throughout the squad preparations.”

Immediately and almost conspiratorially, though, he follows this with the story of a winger’s expulsion. “Yoann Huget was basically thrown out of the training group for missing three consecutive drug tests. He hasn’t been replaced before the Ireland games.”

In the last few years Lievremont has tinkered with his squad, selecting staggering numbers of players and never sticking with a formula that is proven. With this latest scandal, though, perhaps he is finally feeling the pressure of France’s history.

Even last year Huget would have been replaced with either a well known name or an unknown quantity. The coach would have used a rotated squad and remained unpredictable. Now, however, since he has dropped some high profile names he has slammed the door shut. No coming back. “For the moment”.

So if there is no respite for a squad with injuries, and Lievremont is too stubborn to recall seasoned World Cup veterans, where do they go? Will their squad last two warm-up games against Ireland and notorious French contact and scrummaging sessions before they kick off against Japan in North Shore?

No one knows the answer. If Lievremont does, he isn’t letting on. The coaches under him said to have been planning a pre-World Cup coup are silent now, too. All eyes are now trained on Ireland.

For Biggers, he has no more answers for me. He is just concerned with bedding in at new club Narbonne, renovating his holiday home in the South of France and anxiously waiting for his first child with wife Jill.

He has all the answers he needs, and is that lucky soul: the happy rugby player in France. He even makes a point of “giving the Scottish lads all the best.”

Lievremont has every right to be jealous of Smith right now, but as a French Disney character once said : “the only thing predictable about life is it’s unpredictability.” Who would genuinely fall off their seat if France turn on the Champagne taps and smash through to a Semi? Apart from Marc Lievremont…

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Dundonian Alan has played rugby all over the world for various teams including Dundee High School, Heriot's and the Scottish Club International. Now writing from London he covers all issues international and unreported.