Frederic Michalak's wayward kicking has played a part in France's underwhelming Six Nations campaign (Image | Reuters for OTP)

Frederic Michalak’s wayward kicking has played a part in France’s underwhelming Six Nations campaign (Image | Reuters for OTP)

Prior to this year’s RBS 6 Nations, there were few who would have bet against the French as serious contenders. The only northern hemisphere nation to go unbeaten in the autumn tests, winning impressively against Australia, Argentina and Samoa, they looked to have absolved themselves of the mediocre form that saw them slump to a mid-table finish in the 2012 tournament.

Yet now they find themselves with three defeats from three matches, their title hopes long gone, and some serious work ahead of them if they are to avoid the wooden spoon.

In searching for an explanation for this sudden turnaround, most would point to the see-saw form of the French sides of years past – the 2007 World Cup side that scraped out of their group, trounced New Zealand and then crashed out against England in the next round, for instance. Or the class of 1999 who produced what is generally considered one of the greatest performances of all time to beat the All Blacks in the World Cup semi-final only to self-destruct against Australia in the final, dragged down by their own indiscipline.

Indeed, indiscipline could be pinpointed as the cause of previous fluctuations in fortune, instigated by a group of players who could beat anyone on their day but quickly became frustrated when things weren’t going so well, throwing their toys out of the pram rather than regrouping and trying a different approach. Previous head coach Marc Lièvremont had it right when he referred to his charges as a group of “spoiled brats.”

With the 2013 crop, however, there is a sense that the problems run deeper than the classic predisposition for temper tantrums. In all three of their matches so far, they have made promising starts, seen their lead cancelled out and simply been unable to reply. They have no passion, no fighting spirit, not a single hint that they want to be able to overcome their problems. It is genuinely bizarre to see such a talented set of players looking so out of sorts.

Chief among the perpetrators are Frédéric Michalak, whose spectacularly wasteful kicking effectively cost Les Bleus their first two matches; Thierry Dusautoir, who should be doing a far better job of motivating as captain; and Mathieu Basteraud, who exemplifies the current squad: a few moments of promise, but mostly completely absent.

Times were better in the autumn, where a confident France were looking more like Grand Slam candidates than a fair shout for the wooden spoon (Image | AP)

Times were better in the autumn, where a confident France were looking more like Grand Slam candidates than a fair shout for the wooden spoon (Image | AP)

It isn’t a case of them being inexperienced: the vast majority have played for France for a number of years and despite Lièvremont’s scattergun approach to selection, whereby over 80 different players were called up between 2007 and 2011, they have largely been playing together as well. François Trinh-Duc, Morgan Parra, Vincent Clerc, Pascal Papé, Thomas Domingo, Dimitri Szarzewski: all great players, all members of the French squad for years, and all having no impact on this year’s campaign.

Head coach Philippe Saint-André does seem to be on the right track, however: bringing Vincent Clerc and Yannick Nyanga into the team to face England was a smart move, banking on experience rather than promise, while Maxime Médard has been recalled to face Ireland in an attempt to steady the ship. It may be too late to claim this year’s 6 Nations, but if the French play like they did in the first half against England, they could yet salvage a couple of wins.

The downside is that the team will suffer in the long term as a result. It is one thing to improve their form for two weeks, but quite another to be able to build on those results in future. History has shown us that the French mentality doesn’t work like that.

Saint-André’s best option might actually be to scrap the entire squad and start again from scratch at club level, sacrificing any matches that might come in this period. Much like England after the 2011 World Cup, France need a serious rebuilding period if they want to stop the rot.

Now watch as they gather themselves to go undefeated for the rest of the year without dropping any of their players. If we’ve learned anything from the French teams of the past, it is that nothing can be impossible or unexpected.

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