One of rugby union’s more unusual books goes some way to explaining recent events in France. Guy Novès last week became the first national coach to be sacked and the French Rugby Federation is claiming “serious misconduct” by the 63-year-old amounted to a breach of contract which meant he was not entitled to compensation.
Alex Potter, an Englishman, and Georges Duthen, who was the rugby editor of L’Equipe, published The Rise of French Rugby in 1961, the year of the national side’s first tour to New Zealand. It was written in English and aimed at New Zealanders who were presumed to know little about rugby in a country that until winning the Five Nations outright for the first time in 1959 had been better known for what happened off the field there than on it.
“The fans have watched the French Revolution in the game, a revolution that came years after the soccer revolution Hungary led,” wrote Potter and Duthen. “It is progressive, exciting and enthusiastic. The French rugby player has a quality few British players possess: a Latin temperament that bubbles in gay adventure on the field.”
There has not been much adventure in recent years and the only bubbling has been of discontent. France may have taken nearly half a century to make an impact in the Five Nations and did not become a member of what is now World Rugby until 1978, ostracised by the home unions in the 1930s and thrown out of the championship after 10 clubs broke away from the FFR, and were not bothered by the letter of the amateur regulations, but their demise, along with South Africa’s slide, has weakened the international game.
The FFR is led by Bernard Laporte, the coach in the 2003 and 2007 World Cup campaigns that were both ended by England, the country on which he had modelled his side, cracking down on indiscipline and discouraging excitability and clashing with a number of club coaches, including Novès who was at Toulouse. One of Laporte’s assistants in the 2000s, Jacques Brunel, has taken over until the 2019 World Cup, raising questions about who will really be in charge.
There is more than a touch of irony in the accusation, part of the serious misconduct allegation, that Novès did not liaise enough with the Top 14 clubs, and not just because it is an approach for which Laporte was not known. Potter and Duthen, reflecting on the growth of French rugby in the 1920s when the number of clubs increased from 173 to 784, noted a difference in the way clubs and the national side were followed.
“The mass of fans loves the international games,” they wrote. “For the club championship, it has a passion.” It is this faultline that has been exposed more and more in the professional era. The national team do not sit at the top of French rugby’s pyramid and if that did not overly concern Laporte when he was coaching Toulon and in charge of a team who invariably had a majority of players unavailable to the national coach, it does now.
Sacking Novès is one thing, his record after taking over from Philippe Saint-André following the 2015 World Cup was poor, seven victories in a 21-Test reign that ended with a fortuitous draw against Japan in Paris in November, but trying to wriggle out of paying him and his two assistants compensation demeans the FFR.
If Novès, like Gareth Jenkins in Wales a decade before, appeared to be the right choice at the wrong time, appointed in the twilight of his club career rather than in its heyday, he was unable to make sense of a system that worked against him, even when the FFR finally agreed a deal on player release with the Top 14 clubs and a minimum number of France qualified players in national squads.
He tried, without much success, to restore France to the way they were before Laporte’s trench rather than French rugby but what used to come naturally has been squashed under dumb bells, medicine balls and outside influences. Les Bleus have faded into a light grey at the same time the Top 14 has become, financially at least, the leading league in the world with its 26 rounds before the play-off stage.
French rugby is known for its autocrats. Albert Ferrasse was the FFR’s president for 28 years from 1968 and was not known for his willingness to take no for an answer. He regularly clashed with players, steadfastly opposing those who advocated the end of amateurism, and Laporte is a figure in the same mould, prone to barking out orders.
He has taken on the Top 14 clubs, determined to drive down the number of foreign players in the league, having pledged there would be no more project players brought in to qualify on residence. “There will be fewer foreign players in clubs,” he said last year. “By 2020, only between five and seven will be allowed in match-day squads. The clubs say seven, I say five.”
Serge Blanco, the former France full-back turned administrator, said that conflict had been a staple of French rugby since professionalism was introduced in 1995. “I don’t think, however, it has reached such proportions before.” If the continued decline of the national team has led to a search for a solution, the two sides are following different paths.
Laporte has enough to grapple with without involving himself in the France team but the appointment of Brunel, who left Italy in an even worse state than he found them, leaves the rugby world to despair of a country where, in the words of Potter and Duthen, there was “magic in the handling of the ball, dazzling improvisation and brio, a delight to connoisseurs”. Novès failed to make old wine in new bottles quaffable and la vie is anything but rosé.
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