Six Nations - Oval Talk: Les Bleus lack stomach for Le Crunch

Mon, 21 Feb 14:27:00 2011

It might come back to bite it on the derriere, but Oval Talk has a strong suspicion that France do not have the stomach for the potential Six Nations showdown with England next weekend.

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Both sides go into the Twickenham clash unbeaten and with two wins, but for OT there is only going to be one winner, and that team will be wearing white.

Don't get OT wrong - this France team can really play, exceptionally so when they are on song. They have an abundance of power, good pace out wide, a huge pack of very decent scrummagers, and an excellent set piece.

On their day, they can be more than a match for the world's best, as we saw 15 months ago when they dismantled the all-conquering South Africa pack on the way to a 20-15 victory in Toulouse.

Furthermore, they are the reigning Six Nations champions, having last season claimed their third title in five years - a Grand Slam secured with a narrow victory over England in Paris on the final weekend.

But there is something about this current French team that appears vulnerable compared to sides of the past, and it is perhaps this soft underbelly - as Kiwis would call it - that makes OT confident of an England victory.

The French temperament has been questionable since long before the Five Nations became Six. Indeed, it has become something of a cliché to ask which French team will turn up, especially when they are on the road.

Gallic passion often got the better of France against England, especially in some of the classic battles against Will Carling's side of the early and mid-1990s. On other occasions, collectively they just didn't seem that bothered.

But France teams always had an ability to draw on a physical threat, and for OT this is what the current team seems to be lacking most.

A brief search on YouTube unearths plenty of clips showing the extraordinary physicality (some would say violence) that used to characterise French club rugby, an approach their national team were happy to adopt.

Pascal Ondarts, Marc Cecillon and Eric Champ from more recent memory, Gerard Chollet, Armand Vaquerin and Alain Esteve of yesteryear: all were hard, hard men with a sense of menace that was in stark contrast to the renowned flair and running skills of their team-mates.

OT remembers attending the 1991 World Cup quarter-final between France and England at the old Parc des Princes, standing next to the track that used to circle the pitch.

There was a tangible anti-English feeling in the stadium that day and the CRS - France's paramilitary police - were of equal mind as they tried to intimidate the 'Roast Beef' positioned next to them.

Clearly the sport has moved on since those days, and players are no longer able to sort things out on the pitch by adopting the dark arts.

And of course the current French pack is full of superb players, some technically as good as any in the world - but do they have a 'fixer' in the mould of a Bakkies Botha or Ali Williams?

No - and no longer are they able to intimidate teams like they used to using that win-at-all-costs commitment.

Sebastien Chabal sometimes gets the French forwards fired up, but on the whole the current France pack do not put the fear into opponents like they would in the past. They might win on account of their talent, but that is all.

Like the mighty Toulouse, France under Marc Lievremont too often appear to be playing within themselves, unable to harness the passion that could make them a real force at the World Cup.

In their search for a discipline more reminiscent of England, they have lost some of their identity. They have become predictable and happy to play the percentages.

One win in their last five visits to Twickenham also suggests that the French will be underdogs, along with the fact they were dreadful last time when England scored five tries in a 34-10 thumping.

Other indicators that point to an England win are a porous France defence that has leaked 13 tries in their last three games, and the fact that Martin Johnson's men have discovered a successful brand of attacking rugby.

None of this would have mattered a jot against the old France, who would have relied on intimidation and commitment. Have the current generation got the same reserves?

OT thinks not.

Oval Talk / Eurosport

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