There are certain, well-worn phrases you hear in rugby, such as: “the All Blacks run from everywhere.” And then you find out that New Zealand kick more than most teams. How does a team that kicks more than most become known as a running team? It’s the same with French rugby.
The catchphrase is, “the French are just so unpredictable, if they arrive in the right frame of mind, on the day, they can beat anyone.”
There’s no such thing as unpredictable with today’s analysis systems. You can identify and examine weaknesses in every team and player, so how can they be unpredictable? They’re only unpredictable if you haven’t done your homework on them.
In 2002, Brent Russell started a Test match against Australia at Ellis Park because Andre Pretorius had to pull out overnight. They put him in at 10 and he had a phenomenal game, because the Wallabies didn’t expect him to start, so they didn’t do any analysis on him.
That shows the power of analysis, it allows you to really preempt things, tactically. But it doesn’t give you the important details about the human factor, such as personality traits, mindsets or a player’s mentality on tour, and you won’t know that unless you’ve coached against your opponents, or spoken to someone who has.
Any coach who has spent some time in France can tell you what to expect from the French this week.
In fact, I can tell you the team that’s probably going to play the first Test. The Toulouse flyhalf, Jean Marc Doussain will run out at 10. He is not a reliable goal-kicker which means Racing scrumhalf Maxime Machenaud must play. The Bordeaux scrumhalf, Baptise Serin will probably have to back up at 10.
The French captain, Guilhem Guirado can’t play because he played for Toulon in the Top 14 final on Sunday. That means the hooker will have to be 21-year-old Camille Chat. He really struggles in the lineout, and with Yoann Maestri and Julian Le Devedec (who is quite short compared to the locks we have) in the second row, you can almost predict where their strengths and weaknesses will be.
All those Clermont and Toulon players from the final will be fresh for the second Test, which is in Durban, at sea level. So France will be better in the second Test.
Louis Picamoles will run over the top of you if you don’t grab his legs. Fullback Brice Dulin will counter-attack every time you kick poorly. France will take quick taps. Winger Yoann Huget will take inside balls off the flyhalf, that you can count on. Virimi Vakatawa likes to offload; he’s a Fijian outside back that knows how to finish.
That’s not unpredictable, you can take that to the bank. So why do we say we don’t know what to expect? The only reason is because we haven’t asked anybody.
That’s what top sides do. Australia played France in France last year, and they used every resource they could to find out what they could about the French, including convening with several of the Australian coaches in France for a three-day workshop to get insight.
I know that Canal+, France’s equivalent of Supersport, have spent the past six weeks trying to find out which France-based SA players were going to be chosen for the Boks. The French clubs will also have reported which SA players have been requested, all of which helps the national coach, Guy Noves, get an understanding about the makeup of the Springbok team. And yet, in South Africa, we don’t do the same.
We’ve got Pieter de Villiers who played 68 Tests for France, Nick Mallett who coached Stade Francais for three seasons, and I’ve just come back from coaching Montpellier in the Top 14. Absolutely no-one has asked me any questions about the French and I’m pretty sure Pieter and Nick haven’t been contacted either.
If that’s the case, then the Springboks probably won’t know all the French players’ names and they should expect France to be unpredictable. And if you’re only relying on Duane Vermeulen and Frans Steyn for your feedback, then you haven’t used all your resources.
Surely, if you really want to win, you look under every rock?
Omar Mouneimne is a South African coach who just did the defence for Stade Francais where you’d need to know how the French like to attack, CJ van der Linde is also back in South Africa after working as Montpellier’s scrum coach in France, and Shaun Sowerby is now a Top 14 forwards coach who made more than 100 appearances at Toulouse under Noves.
We miss a trick there and I don’t think the All Blacks would let that opportunity slip through their fingers.
In 2007, leading up to the World Cup, England came and played two Tests in South Africa. I studied their weekly schedule to see how they prepare and got Supersport to put an extra camera and mic on their lineout caller during the Tests, because the reality was that I knew they wouldn’t change their lineout calling process during the next three months leading up to the World Cup.
Those were the lengths that we went to. I find it strange that we’re going to war with France, and people are going in blindly.