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ESPN SCRUM / ESPNscrum Columnist
Martin Gillingham
Martin Gillingham | Columnist Index
Martin Gillingham is an experienced journalist and commentator who is currently heard on ITV, Sky Sports and BT Sport where he is the lead voice on their exclusive coverage of the French Top 14.
Martin Gillingham
Excuses wearing thin for Saint-Andre
Martin Gillingham
January 28, 2014
Saint-Andre needs good results this year to keep his job © Getty Images

There has been a running theme in the reporting of France's preparations for the Six Nations tournaments led by the headline, "Saint-Andre: no more excuses", only to be followed by column inch after column inch of reasons why - with supporting quotes from the France coach - the riches of the Top 14 are undermining the national team.

For anyone prepared to listen - and as an engaging English speaker who could also play a bit Philippe Saint-Andre is never without an audience - he'll tell you all about the fight to secure release periods as well as talk you through the pitfalls of the Top 14 and its riches. He'll have you know it's good for some - including him when he was in charge at Toulon - but for the France rugby coach it's bit like being Roy Hodgson: too many foreigners stunting the development of all too many homespun talents.

To parrot the cover of Midi Olympique's Six Nations preview, Saint Andre is sous pression. A football cliché if ever there was one. And this under pressure coach is doing what many of them do; he's getting his excuses in first. But to put it politely, Saint-Andre's club and Top 14 gripes are, at best, exaggerated.

Italy revel in their triumph, Italy v France, Six Nations, Stadio Olimpico, Rome, Italy, February 3, 2013
Defeat to Italy was a disastrous start to last year's Six Nations © Getty Images

For starters, a new deal between the national union (FFR) and the league (LNR) has given Saint-Andre more time with his squad and a greater likelihood that they will arrive for camps fit and less fatigued. For the first time last weekend Saint-Andre was allowed to keep his chosen 23 out of Top 14 action.

Ironically, it left the stage clear for four of the glorious 6th of July British and Irish Lions to grab the headlines in Racing Metro's rout of Toulouse at the Stade de France. Jonathan Sexton scored the first try; Mike Phillips hared 80 metres up field to pounce on Sexton's deft kick-through to grab the second, while Jamie Roberts and Dan Lydiate carried and tackled all afternoon as four men - each due to be in Six Nations action this weekend - lifted the gloom on the Parisians' season.

It is simply untrue that the influx of foreign stars gets in the way of France's best teenagers. Three years ago at Worcester the following France U20 backline started against England: Yann Lesgourges, Jean-Marc Doussain, Jules Plisson, Jean-Pascal Barraque, Marvin O'Connor, Pierre Berard and Jean-Marcellin Buttin.

Two have since been capped at senior level by France while a third (Plisson) is in the running to make his debut against England this weekend. All seven, though still just 22 or 23, are integral members of Top 14 squads and get more game time than their opposite numbers on that day do in the Aviva Premiership.

And, by the way, the France replacements at Sixways included Geoffrey Palis who though unlikely to be involved on Saturday is in the current 30-man squad. Last year's French lament - admittedly it was spun with as much vigour in the French press as the "Anglo-Saxon" - was the fly-half "problem". Frederic Michalak started four of last year's five Six Nations matches wearing 10; in the other, against England at Twickenham, Francois Trinh-Duc was promoted only to give way to Michalak soon after half-time. We were led to believe that France didn't have any other options.

Castres' Remi Tales is tackled by Samu Manoa, Castres v Northampton Saints, Heineken Cup, Stade Pierre Antoine, Castres, France, December 10, 2011
Remi Tales went overlooked last year despite leading Castres' title charge © Getty Images

Saint-Andre, the player, and Saint-Andre, the coach, are the complete antithesis of one another. The current incarnation is uber-cautious, apparently oblivious 12 months ago to how Remi Tales was steering Castres towards the Top 14 title while at the same time slow on recognising the talents of Camille Lopez who was busy elevating an average, bottom half club into something rather better in Bordeaux.

Meanwhile, Plisson's talents were starting to blossom at Stade Francais. Fast forward to January 2014 and the Parisians are top of the table with Plisson having started 12 of the 17 games despite the presence at the club of Springbok flyhalf Morne Steyn.

Going back to my Sixways back line from February 2011, three of the seven are specialist fly-halves - Plisson, Doussain (who despite having earned his five senior caps as a scrum-half played all his rugby to that point, including his Toulouse Top 14 debut, as a 10) and Barraque. Where Saint-Andre's challenge is real is in how he balances his half-backs selection with the need to have a specialist place-kicker.

"Saint-Andre, the player, and Saint-Andre, the coach, are the complete antithesis of one another"

It is no coincidence that the two most handsomely remunerated players in the Top 14 (Jonny Wilkinson and Jonathan Sexton) and the best paid Frenchman, Morgan Parra, are their club's first choicer kicker. Yet this time last week - before Tales' arm injury ruled him out of this weekend - Saint-Andre seemed prepared to go into the most important ever match of his coaching career with Maxime Machenaud as the designated kicker. That in spite of the fact he's had less than 10 shots at goal in a competitive environment all season.

What France is crying out for is someone who is not only worth his place on merit in the starting line-up but who also kicks goals with a success rate in excess of 75 per cent. Saint-Andre will probably tell you that individual either doesn't exist or isn't available to him at the moment. Parra will tick most of the boxes once he's proved he's fully recovered from his knee injury while, of the current 30-man squad, Palis is the most accomplished from the kicking tee.

Which brings me back to where we started and that misguided view that the Top 14 is to blame for the France team's decline under Saint-Andre.

In the summer of 2011, Castres signed a 25-year-old South African from Currie Cup side, the Lions, on a three-month contract as injury cover. The young man had made his Super Rugby debut as a teenager but his career had since stalled. France was offering him short-term employment with the promise of a longer contract if it worked out.

It was a shot to nothing. Two-and-a-half years on, Rory Kockott is the French league's deadliest boot, the player-of-the-year, and according to Toulon's Mourad Boudjellal, being offered 600,000 euros to reject a move from Castres to Toulon. In August this year, Kockott, who came to France on a wing and a prayer, becomes eligible to play for France.

Had it not been for the Top 14 Kockott would never have arrived. Assuming Saint-Andre is still in the job in August, the France coach might actually admit the Top 14 isn't that bad after all.

The emergence of the likes of Rory Kockott show Saint-Andre's Top 14 criticism is wide of the mark © Getty Images

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