The French Rugby Federation is to hold a referendum on whether the next head coach of the men’s national team should be a non-French citizen.
The referendum will take place from the 9th-11th April, with the result announced on 12th April. Each French amateur rugby club will have one vote to cast.
The referendum can be seen as the direct result of two factors: firstly, the fact that, somewhat extraordinarily, throughout their history, the French national team has never ever had a non-French head coach; secondly, the national side’s truly appalling run of form of late and French federation desperation to find any fix before France hosts the Rugby World Cup for the second time, in 2023.
To illustrate just how bad the slump in the national team’s form has been, let me indulge you with some delicious facts about their demise which will no doubt cheer any pessimistic Home Nations fan to think, “Well, it could be worse”. In the first 11 years of the Six Nations existence France won Europe’s pinnacle of international test rugby 5 times, claiming the Grand Slam (a clean sweep of all 5 of their games) on three occasions. Meanwhile, in that same period, on the quadrennial stage that is the Rugby World Cup, France were knocked out at the semi-finals twice and pushed New Zealand oh so close in the 2011 final.
Compare this impressive track record to the last 8 years. France have not even finished second, let alone won a Six Nations championship, and have instead picked up one Wooden Spoon (the term for the team which finishes in 6th) and lost to wooden spoon-collecting Italy twice. In the 2015 Rugby World Cup, they did make it out of the group stage, only to be completely thrashed by New Zealand 62-13 in the quarter-finals.
French national rugby is, in short, in a dire state and now the French rugby federation are considering the previously unthinkable notion of a non-Frenchman in charge after this year’s World Cup. However, Bernard Laporte, the head of the French Rugby Federation and head coach of the national team from 1999-2007 has decided this significant change requires the general approval of French rugby clubs. The question will be worded as below, with a yes or ‘Oui’ vote to support allowing the appointment of a foreign head coach.
— Fédération Française de Rugby (@FFRugby) March 29, 2019
If the referendum vote produces a positive result, candidates in the running include current Wales coach Warren Gatland and Montpellier boss Vern Cotter.
Whether even the most talented and experienced of rugby coaches such as Gatland can turn around the fortunes of the national team remains to be seen. Four different coaches have held the French helm in the past 8 years and in both the 2011 and 2015 Rugby World Cups reports emerged of the players revolting against the coaching set-ups. Others point the finger for the national team’s failings less at coaching and more at how money poured into the French club game has deprived younger French players of the same opportunities their Irish, Welsh and other counterparts have to break through early into the top professional levels. After all, the significantly higher French salary cap means many of the best-paid players in the world like 2018 rugby player of the year Johnny Sexton ply their trade in the Top 14.
However, it’s not (quite) all doom and gloom for French rugby. Last year the French Under 20 team triumphed for the first time ever at the World Under 20 Rugby Championship, beating their Irish, South African, English and New Zealand equivalents along the way. Several of these players leapt into the national squad for this year’s Six Nations, including 19-year-old fly-half Romain Ntamack (pictured above). In their home match against Scotland, France’s half-back pairing of Ntamack and 22-year-old Antoine Dupont showcased the potential France have.
The days of exciting French attacking flair from Les Blues have been too few and far between of late. Perhaps a foreign coach could harness the undoubted individual talents of the French squad. Either way, hopefully the result of the referendum isn’t 52/48 and causes recriminations for years to come!