Les Losers: Brunel’s side has lost 9 of 12 games
PARIS (AP) — An expression does the rounds each time France’s struggling rugby team throws away another winning position.
“C’est dans la Tete” (It’s in the Mind), French players past and present agree.
It’s less of an excuse and more like a fact these days, yet coach Jacques Brunel is sidestepping it. He continues to say France does not have a psychological weakness.
The stats say otherwise: His side has lost nine out of 12 matches since he took charge, five with France leading at halftime.
Les Tricolores are becoming Les Losers. The most jarring defeat was last Friday, 24-19 to Wales in the Six Nations opener. While there is no shame in losing to last year’s runner-up by a close margin, France led 16-0 at halftime playing at home.
Next up is England away on Sunday.
England won 32-20 at Six Nations champion Ireland last weekend. England showed power, precision, and tactical nous, none of which are attributes of this France side.
SPECIALISTS IN DEFEAT
France reached its third Rugby World Cup final in 2011 and almost beat New Zealand at Eden Park, defeated only 8-7.
Since then, it has been a spectacular fall from grace and France has not finished higher than third in the Six Nations — only once.
Les Tricolores have become specialists in defeat. The bad form over the past 12 months includes a first ever loss to Fiji, 21-14 at home .
A lack of confidence, clumsy knock-ons, mistakes under pressure, and poor discipline have turned winning positions into defeats.
Here is a look at some of those losses, culminating in France’s crushing defeat to Wales:
FRANCE 13, IRELAND 15 (Feb. 3, 2018): A brilliant try from Teddy Thomas puts France 13-12 up with less than 10 minutes left. Having converted it, Anthony Belleau misses a routine penalty in the 78th minute. France falls asleep on Ireland’s next kick. The Irish gather the ball, work their way up the field with relentlessly precise phases of play to set up Jonathan Sexton for a superb injury-time dropped goal.
SCOTLAND 32, FRANCE 26 (Feb. 11, 2018): France led 20-14 at the interval thanks to two excellent Teddy Thomas tries, before falling apart. France gives away a massive 13 penalties altogether, allowing scrumhalf Greig Laidlaw to steer the Scots home with six second-half penalty kicks.
FRANCE 26, SOUTH AFRICA 29 (Nov. 10, 2018): Did France learn from its mistakes heading into the first of the autumn tests? No. France led 26-22 with seconds remaining but lock Paul Gabrillagues gave away a senseless penalty in the South Africa 22. The Springboks worked their way up the field and scored a try five minutes into injury time.
FRANCE 19, WALES 24 (Feb. 1): France makes five clear mistakes — including two knock-ons — in the second half. A calamitous error sees France winger Yoann Huget gift George North a try as he chases down a kick, slides to smother the ball and lets it squirm out of his hands. Still, France leads 19-17 with 10 minutes left. Two minutes later, lock Sebastien Vahaamahina tries an ambitious looping pass which is intercepted by North and he surges upfield to score.
BRUNEL IN DENIAL?
Even after the Wales defeat, Brunel maintained that France’s faux-pas was not a sign of an ongoing psychological weakness.
“I don’t think it’s a mental thing,” he said, instead praising the team’s team spirit.
He seems the only one who thinks it’s not an issue.
Flyhalf Camille Lopez said candidly: “At this level, team spirit isn’t enough. ... We’re not losing because of the way we play rugby.”
Burly flanker Arthur Iturria, who also played against Wales, backed that view.
As did Christophe Dominici, France’s dazzling star in a famous win against New Zealand in the 1999 Rugby World Cup semifinals.
“It’s in the mind,” Dominici said. “Every time they’re faced with a problem, they become fragile.”
France needs to work on its mental preparation.
“We’re one of the only nations not to put an emphasis on that,” Dominici said. “We’ve invested more in technique, but we’ve never wanted to strengthen their minds.”
Olivier Magne, a world-class lock who won 90 caps, gave a more damning verdict.
“You sense that even with a 30-point lead, they are going to get themselves into trouble,” he said. “The team has a psychological problem.”
STATS DON’T LIE
France scores more points in the first half and concedes more in the second half, as well as missing more tackles and conceding more penalties after the break.
“As the match goes on, this fear of winning always resurfaces,” France scrumhalf Baptiste Serin said. “The old demons come back.”
France captain Guilhem Guiardo has spoken several times about France’s inability to cope under pressure. The problem seems so evident, even those not concerned by it are compelled to comment.
Former England utility back Austin Healey, writing in his Daily Telegraph column on Friday, said France’s “attention to detail and psychological approach is like something from the 1980s.”
Despite so many observers clearly pointing to an issue that needs addressing, Brunel resists employing a mental coach to help players overcome their fear and doubt.
Meanwhile, his team keeps on losing.