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How Brunel has changed France

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How French rugby has already changed under Jacques Brunel

The Guy Noves era at France ended three weeks ago, when he was unceremoniously dumped from the job he claimed to love and replaced by Jacques Brunel.

The news, though widely expected, was not greeted with universal approval. Former Bordeaux Brunel coach is a month older than the man he replaced, and was assistant coach to Bernard Laporte when the FFR president was coach of the French national side – prompting suggestions that Laporte could be France coach-by-proxy.

The early farce surrounding the new coach’s choice of staff didn’t help. The French media got themselves a little overheated in nominating every hot choice in the Top 14, from La Rochelle duo Patrice Collazo and Xavier Garbajosa and Clermont’s Franck Azema, to Montpellier’s Vern Cotter and Toulon’s Fabien Galthie – not to mention Lyon’s Pierre Mignoni and the rather more left-field option of Toulouse’s Ugo Mola.

It didn’t matter that Collazo, Garbajosa and Mignoni had all recently signed long-term deals with their clubs; or that Cotter and Galthie were just a few months into their own contracts – they were hot tickets to a new dawn that pundits were determined to make as bright as possible, regardless of the fact that French rugby was – in reality still is – an unholy mess.

As big coaching name after big coaching name politely but firmly distanced themselves from any of the Marcoussis hotseats, speculation quickly dialled back – but, while Sebastien Bruno’s secondment from Lyon as scrum coach, was widely welcomed, the names Julien Bonnaire and Jean-Baptiste Elissalde were greeted with questioning looks and no small amount of suspicion.

New lineout coach Bonnaire, who only retired as a player at the end of last season, has almost no notable coaching experience to speak of.

Backs coach Elissalde’s genius on the pitch was undeniable, but his ability as a coach to transfer that natural mastery to others is questionable. Toulouse’s confident and flying backs division this season bear no comparison to the lumpen, leaden three-quarters that disgraced the club before it dumped him at the end of a dreadful 2016/17 season almost as unceremoniously as France got rid of Noves in December.

With just a week before Brunel selects his squad for the Six Nations, and less than a month before France kick off their tournament against Ireland at Stade de France, it would be easy to think that the only changes are among the faces at the Marcoussis training set up.

Brunel’s big changes

But that’s not entirely true. A shift is taking place. The elite player system, introduced by Laporte’s predecessor to tempt Noves to belatedly take the national job he probably should have accepted in years earlier, was – in a few words from the new man at the helm – effectively scrapped after just a few months.

Talking to journalists on Monday, Brunel said of the elite list: “Today, I don’t know if it should [continue].”

He added that, during his time in charge, “selection will not be made on the basis of this list … [which] … constrains the clubs.”

To be honest, the England-aping elite system was already in deep trouble. Initially hailed as a new dawn for French rugby, it quickly became clear it was a millstone. Physical preparation was taken out of the hands of club coaches and imposed from afar by Marcoussis. To say it didn’t work would be to miss an opportunity to say it was an abject failure.

Figures

Just look at the figures. France used 68 players during the November internationals. Of the 45 on Noves’ elite list, 18 were not selected. Some were injured; others, including inexplicable Noves favourite Jean-Marc Doussain, were not. So why were they wasting their time? We’ll never know.

Under Brunel, selection will be by consent. Players who are fit and hungry in the eyes of the national team, and in the opinion of their club coaches will be picked for tournaments, tours and series.

Quite how that builds a squad for the 2019 World Cup remains to be seen. But Noves’ high-handed tactics were clearly not working, despite his well-publicised complaints to the contrary.

Which brings us to a second, rather more surprising, new reality. Relations between club and country were a key reason for Noves’ disputed departure. But, at long last, the twain between those two long-term rivals of French rugby, the FFR and LNR, which runs the professional game in France has, if not actually met, then at least moved closer. They are at least sitting down in the same room … and talking in the direction of one another.

On Monday, 12 of the 14 coaches in the Top 14 headed up to Marcoussis for a round table with Brunel, his lieutenants, Laporte and LNR president Paul Goze.

Montpellier’s Vern Cotter chose to stay with his club to focus on their Champions Cup trip to Exeter; while Castres’ Christophe Urios discovered his plane was cancelled at the last minute.

The way forward?

Under discussion, the way forward for a France side for whom going forward has been a problem since the Laporte years. The meeting took in the validity of the elite player system; training and preparation; coaching and consulting.

The idea for now is that Top 14 coaches will occasionally parachute in and coach on a short-term consultancy basis. Franck Azema has already been suggested as a possible drop-in for next June’s tour of New Zealand. Cooks and broth, or many hands and light work? We’ll have to wait and see.

It’s got to get past the talking stage yet. Right now, that first meeting – despite the promising noises afterwards – can be dismissed as just talk. But clubs have agreed to let national coaches come to their training sessions; while Marcoussis will welcome Top 14 coaches who offer their views and expertise. It all sounds terribly grown up.

Will any of this work? Little else in French rugby over the past decade has – so why not give it a chance? It may be desperate throw of the dice – a million-to-one shot. But, in the Discworld fantasies of Terry Pratchett, million-to-one shots succeed nine times out of 10. Maybe it will work just as well in the fantasy world of French rugby.

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How French rugby has already changed under Jacques Brunel