Guy Novès’ hiring after France’s 2015 Rugby World Cup capitulation was met with praise from many corners of the rugby world. The former Toulouse coach had developed the rouge et noir into domestic and European juggernauts. He built a dominant pack and complimented it with a dynamic and entertaining backline led by the magician Frederic Michalak.
Les Bleus were reeling after the quarter-final debacle against the All Blacks which saw Phillip Saint-Andre lose his job, and plenty saw Novès as a man who could lead a French resurgence with an entertaining brand of rugby that had made his Toulouse side so good to watch.
But sadly, this has not occurred.
France have, at best, stagnated, becoming a largely soporific team to watch, and not even managing to grind out wins. Since Guy Novès was hired two years ago, the national team has won just a third of its games; failing to beat any of the leading nations (Australia, South Africa, New Zealand or England) in nine attempts.
There is growing disquiet in France about the future of the national team with Novès at the helm. Dismal Autumnal showings followed a winless summer tour to a ‘similarly struggling’ South Africa, and there is considerable smoke about Jacques Brunel being readied to take over.
For Last Word on Rugby, Harry Latham-Coyle looks at why France must move on from Guy Novès.
Disconnect between Club Success and National Team
What is most worrying about Novès tenure is the relative strength of the Top 14 during this period, and how this has failed to translate to the international arena. French teams top two of the five Champions Cup pools, while three other sides sit in contention in second place.
The Challenge Cup has been won by French sides both this year  and last, while Clermont and Racing 92 have been runners-up to Saracens in the Champions Cup. These displays of European success makes the French men’s national teams’ abject international performances during this period all the more baffling.
The Top 14 is a uniquely deep competition: one only has to note the swift demise of 2015 champions Stade Francais, who now languish in a relegation battle. Surprise package Lyon and a resurgent Toulouse are among the playoff spot holders for this year; the pair finished 10th and 12th respectively last season.
One factor critics have pinpointed is the influx of foreigners into the league which some say is detrimental to the national team. And that is true to a point. Others suggest it is the Top 14’s strength that makes France weak: it has an over bloated and ridiculously physically demanding schedule that runs longer than any other competition.
However, the performances in the Champions Cup showcase just how stacked the league is with talent, and [indeed] superior coaches to Guy Noves. Many will point out that he has failed to bring individuals together and build a national ‘team’.
Leading Examples for Possible Change
La Rochelle are the prime example, the best exponents of French flair since the days of Sella and Blanco. Credit should go to the revolutionary Patrice Collazo who has masterminded their evolution. They are ‘light on stars’ compared to the rest of the Top 14 but this is part of their brilliance.
Unheralded names buying in to the concept of no-fear free-flowing rugby and playing starring roles. Note professional rugby debutant Pierre Bourgarit. Starring at hooker for La Rochelle, in his first appearance in their destruction of Wasps. Or prop Dany Priso, who made more metres than any Wasps player, and beat six defenders while also dominating at scrum time.
Collazo gets the best out of his foreign imports too. Victor Vito, Jason Eaton and Brock James contributing fantastically, yet still allowing French exuberance to shine around them. Firecracker Fijian Levani Botia is another success story: the decision to move a standout sevens centre to the back-row, a move few coaches make. But it is one that has paid off.
Patrice Collazo should be the model of coach that the French board look at to helm the national team and build in a similar manner.
Failure to Develop Potential Superstars
France is well-stocked with talent. Anthony Belleau looks like a fly-half who can be built around at just 21, a tantalising prospect. A wise head on young shoulders, with a little ‘Michalak-magic’ sprinkled in too (see his match-winning score against Bath in Round Three).
Clermont’s centre Damien Penaud and flanker Judicaël Cancoriet are also tenderly aged, and have excelled in recent months. Potential superstars, yet not being propagated by Novès.
Newly qualified Alivereti Raka is another 23 year old prospect, with the Fijian’s unfortunate knee-ligament injury robbing us of a potential starring Six Nations role. Sekou Macalou and Camille Chat have many admirers, while Antoine Dupont was the star of the Autumn at scrum-half: all are 22 or under.
There are others coming through, not least fly halves Matthieu Jalibert and Romain Ntamack, who are starting (and starring) in Bordeaux and Toulouse at 18 years of age. Coincidentally France finished fourth at last year’s World Rugby Under-20 Championships, and some of the best of that crop will begin to hope to make an impact in the next year or two.
Young Talent Need to Cultivated
France need someone to get the best out of these prodigiously talented young studs, by potentially mixing them into an already strong squad – who are packed with game breakers.
There is a tantalizing potential backline for the Six Nations: imagine Dupont, Belleau, Fofana, Penaud, Raka, Vakatawa and perhaps Spedding. A horrifying prospect for even the best defence coaches (before Penaud and Raka’s injury).
The current team are lead well by Guilhem Guirado at hooker and Louis Picamoles is a brutal ball-carrying back-row bastion. While underrated cogs like Sébastien Vahaamahina (instrumental in Clermont’s home win over Saracens) and Kevin Gourdon complete a pack that can physically dominate any opponent in World Rugby.
Guy Novès has struggled in this area. Rotating too often – particularly at halfback – his sides have lacked consistency and, as a result, leaders. An over-reliance on the old guard, such a Francois Trinh-Duc and Yoann Huget, has handicapped what should be an incredibly exciting team of young players to watch. The Autumn fixtures highlighted this, with the better performances often coming from the youth movement, while the old-stagers faltered.
Virimi Vakatawa has perhaps been the crowning glory of Novès selections. The sevens star has paved the way for other converts to thrive throughout Europe since being plucked from the circuit and inserted into the French squad. But Vakatawa is no better as a fifteens player than he was on his arrival in the national team.
Indeed, Racing have shown in their short time with him greater understanding of his abilities and potential, using him at outside centre and involving him in the tight, where his immense offloading game can be much more dangerous.
For France, a new coach would potentially bring a new attitude, a more consistent selection policy and to have more emphasis on letting the youngsters play.
French Rugby – Where to From Here?
The key is finding that man to take the squad forward. This writer believe Novès has shown little to suggest he can do it in his tenure as head coach. Performance is a critical KPI, which French Rugby must place higher on their ‘to-do list’.
The ideal candidate may be Vern Cotter, who did a sterling job with Scotland. Though it is unlikely he can be prised from Montpellier. Cotter’s new charges do not play with quite the exuberance of La Rochelle, but they are similarly joyful to watch. Aaron Cruden, the conductor of a percussion ensemble spearheaded by the incomparable Nemani Nadolo. Cotter’s long years on the continent see him as a ‘Francophone’ but would bring a foreigner’s view.
The aforementioned Collazo is similarly committed to La Rochelle, it seems, but he too would be a superb domestic appointment. More likely among the Top 14 coaches may be Pierre Mignoni (who has built Lyon into front-runners this year). Christophe Urios, from Castres. Or even Franck Azema, who’s Clermont side are a good blueprint to build around for national success.
Jacques Brunel is being mooted as a short-term option, the former Italy head coach who is now with Bordeaux-Begles as a forwards coach. His time with the Azzurri was largely unsuccessful, and thus it may seem a strange move. However, Bernard Laporte – President of the French Rugby Federation, and importantly a key decision-maker on Novès’ future – counted Brunel among his assistants in his time as head coach. That was a successful period that saw four Six Nations titles and two Grand Slams. Un peu de népotisme, peut-être?
Longer Term Options the Best Choice
A decision must be made. Regardless of motive, to hire a short-term coach might make little sense, with the 2019 World Cup looming ever-larger on the horizon. Laporte and the FFR would be wise to look for a long-term option to helm the team for now and, more crucially, the future.
The success at club level shows there is no reason for the French national team to be struggling, and it is time to turn it around. Replacing Guy Novès and installing a new head coach now would be an excellent and necessary first step. ‘Make the call’ and if the man is found to bring these pieces together, France can be quickly transformed into potential Six Nations contender.
With the right coach to develop the squad long term, France may become a Rugby World Cup dark horse once more. And even more long-term, they could emerge as favourites in time for their recently announced hosting role of the World Cup tournament, in 2023.
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