Belfast Telegraph

Joe could fancy French challenge

Good to talk: Ireland head coach Joe Schmidt (left) with French counterpart Jacques Brunel
Good to talk: Ireland head coach Joe Schmidt (left) with French counterpart Jacques Brunel

By Neil Francis

The season grinds to a halt at the end of this month and, while the Champions Cup semis were decent affairs, all the good stuff is taking place off the field.

If you are asking who would I prefer to be running our code, an oligarch or a committee, I'd go for the 'Big O' every time. You might not get the decision you want or take the direction you believe is the right way to go, but at least you will get forward progress and everything is definitive. No group-think!

Ever since Bernard Laporte, president of the French Rugby Federation, took us to the cleaners in the tender for the 2023 Rugby World Cup he has gone up hugely in my estimation.

Ireland were completely politically outmanoeuvred by Laporte's mix of pragmatism and Prada.

Bernie knew all the angles and he brilliantly let Emmanuel Macron detach himself from the bid team, meaning Laporte was free to work his, ahem, magic. Most of us will be worm-food the next time Ireland pluck up the courage to bid again.

In the meantime, hosting the World Cup is one thing - having a team that will give the French nation real pride and be competitive is entirely another. Laporte had to do something.

Jacques Brunel is not the answer. A current 31pc win ratio is better than the 22pc ratio he had as coach with Italy, but the win/loss record is only symptomatic of the fixture list.

It is the chronic skill deficit and inability to follow not only their traditional game, but a basic, watered-down version of it, that is upsetting French fans.

Brunel gets to bring his French squad to Japan and they could yet conceivably win the bloody thing, but more than likely won't get out of a group that contains England and Argentina. They did lose to Fiji last November, remember.

We also have to remind ourselves that the reigns of Marc Lievremont, Philippe Saint-André, Guy Noves and Brunel have been scatological, irrational and unpredictable and lacking any common sense.

Lievremont did get France to the 2011 World Cup final, but his squad staged a mutiny against him in the pool stages and he was a dogsbody for the rest of the tournament as the players managed themselves. France lost 8-7 to the All Blacks in a match they should have won.

Bernie is now chief of the FFR, and with a very decent roll-out of Under-20 and academy players France does not lack for quality, but they are like a six pack of beers without the plastic thing to keep them all together. They need a good coach - a very good coach - and simply cannot countenance another stooge.

Bernie needed outside help. He needed a foreign coach, but he needed to change the constitution of the FFR because it stated that France could only be coached by a Frenchman. Bernie held a little referendum to see if he could encourage the proletariat to change their minds. Despite some vigorous encouragement, the clubs voted 59pc to 41pc to maintain the status quo.

This little hiccup was a tad more than a minor inconvenience as Bernie, it seems, had his ducks in a row. He had stated that he would talk to the five best coaches in the world. We are not sure if that is strictly true, but we know he did definitely talk at length to one. We are not sure exactly what Laporte said to Joe Schmidt in their conversations, but the Irish weather may not have been on the agenda.

In the space of four years, Schmidt would turn France from an embarrassing shambles to World Cup favourites for the 2023 show; a salary the size of the GDP of a small African country could be accommodated.

The French are never shy or retiring when it comes to matters of sex or money.

Schmidt is a free agent from November 2, 2019, onwards and I do think he will probably spend time with his family in New Zealand - but for how long?

How can you announce Fabien Galthie as your coach from the 2019 World Cup onwards and then say Schmidt was your first choice.

The bottom line here is that if Schmidt had accepted Laporte's entreaties then he would be the coach of France for the 2020 season through to the World Cup final in Paris in 2023.

The small matter of a truly enormous salary would be a mere footnote in any contract. It was about getting the right man.

Once again the French have got their timing wrong. Galthie was a brilliant player - I played against him a few times and he is very charismatic.

Galthie coached Stade Francais, Montpellier and Toulon. His coaching career, although moderately successful, did not match his playing career. Two Grand Slams and two Championships is a pretty decent record.

Galthie's stay with Montpellier and Toulon (predictably) did not end well and he has spent more and more time on his media career.

Three years ago, in the media centre at the Aviva, I suggested to Galthie that the then coach Guy Noves should have coached France 10 years before he got the job and that he was too old for the role when he was promoted.

"You should have the job," I said. Galthie shrugged his shoulders, suggesting to me that he no longer had an interest in it. He is out of the coaching scene for two years and has now been brought back in, but not as a first choice.

Laporte has at least been clever enough to add him to the coaching ticket for Japan so that he doesn't have a standing start for the Six Nations in 2020.

Galthie knows all the angles from his time as a superior player and as a club coach, but one of the saddest things I have seen in a rugby context was Guilhem Guirado and Jacques Brunel at an excruciating press conference this year in the Aviva after another thumping from Ireland. I am not sure that Galthie would endure or enjoy that sort of situation. Live ammunition is bad for your health.

I suspect two things will happen between now and 2023. Schmidt will be unable to stay out of mainstream rugby for more than a year and Bernie will eventually get his man - whatever it takes.

A French man as the figurehead, but Schmidt as the de facto.

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