The ongoing inquest into French rugby continues with back-to-back defeats in the opening two games of the Six Nations.
The last-minute drop goal of Johnny Sexton was a harsh lesson on failing to close a game out at home, and the defeat at Murrayfield was a sign of a team low on confidence, lacking self-belief and at a total crossroads as to how to organise their defensive unit when it mattered most in the final stages of the game.
So, what’s going wrong? France have in the ranks some exciting players; the likes of Teddy Thomas – away from his Edinburgh Airport exploits – and Geoffrey Doumayrou look lively in the backs and seem comfortable taking a game to the opposition in test rugby. But, exciting is as far as it goes.
There’s a clear void of experience and big game players in French rugby, only too obvious to see with Scotland boasting 494 caps to France’s 278 in the starting XVs – the absence of such presence was clear to see in the final 15 minutes of the game.
France’s two defeats is the first time since 2013 where they have lost both opening games, and that was the year French rugby was humiliated to the wooden spoon; it’s only made for more miserable reading since then. Consecutive fourth-placed finishes in 2014 and 2015, followed with a fifth and a third-place finish in the most recent Six Nations; it makes for a shocking attempt to bring the trophy back to the Stade de France – a piece of silverware missing since 2010.
However, it would seem the usual argument of a Top14 feudal system stifling French players development is not as easy to blame as many rugby fans do. The idea that the all too familiar sight of foreign imports into the Top14 league means that there’s less priority to play French talent, consequently ushering French players out of their own domestic league does not appear a valid reason for French failure on the international stage when you compare their exports to the Premiership’s.
The general consensus would be that the Top14 has more French players leaving their domestic league compared to the English league due to the wage structure which allows for the A-listers in international rugby to make their mark in France. Yet, just the nine French exports from the Top14 suggests all the national talent is there, but they’re just not being selected for their respective clubs.
Despite such findings, the 2017 European Cup final between Clermont and Saracens saw greater French representation for Clermont than English for Saracens – Clermont’s matchday squad was made up of 65% French players, compared to Sarries 56% of English. Saracens went on to win the final, but the argument that French players are being marginalised in the big games seems a myth when it comes to domestic rugby.
This is then supported by the fact there have been more imports to the Premiership than the Top14 since 2013; thus meaning, technically, there should be more competition and an argument that English players are sidelined for others with greater amounts of player competition.
The general theory that the higher number of national exports and foreign imports tampers with the quality of said national side is a proven theory in 2015 – the year the Premiership had the highest number of imports and exports since 2013 – and the year of the darkest hour in English rugby; Twickenham’s horror show.
This notion surrounding French rugby, therefore, has shown it has a premise to stand on, but fails to adequately answer the question – Why French rugby has been so poor since receiving the wooden spoon in 2013 – as the numbers do not outweigh that of the English game.
It would seem that French talent is perhaps just not good enough. During the 2012/13 Top14 season, none of the top three-point scorers were French and only three of the top 10 try scorers in the league were French; the French players have been around, they haven’t left the national league, they are just not good enough and this has reflected in the national side.
Of course, the budget and financial power of the French sides attract the top, top players; way back in the 2011/12 season, four of the French clubs had a budget over €20million and this season the base cap of Premiership clubs is £7million – making the gap between wages of leagues a huge difference.
But, the French players are still getting a shot in the big games and the big teams, as made evident with Clermont’s European Cup final last season, and the fact there’s been fewer imports and less national players leaving their domestic league compared to the English league; the players have just not had enough quality, and perhaps the answer is to make the system a bottom-up system where grassroots is more of a focus rather than looking at domestic league handlings as a reason for national failings.