PARIS, March 20 (Reuters) - Marc Lievremont’s Six Nations grand slam winners have sent a strong warning ahead of the 2011 World Cup in New Zealand -- France are back in the hunt.
Appointed after the 2007 World Cup, the France coach was commissioned to restore pride to the nation’s rugby after the eight-year reign of Bernard Laporte, his ebullient predecessor, ended in failure on home soil.
Lievremont said from the start that to reach that goal he had to rebuild a team, develop a game based on risk and initiative and find consistency in performances and results.
There was anything but consistency in selection nor in performance as his team failed before this tournament to string three wins together, alternating victory highs against Wales in Cardiff, New Zealand and over South Africa with the lows of the England and All Blacks thrashings.
However, even if some of the matches in this year’s Six Nations will live long in the memory - five successive triumphs over Scotland, Ireland, Wales, Italy and England have finally brought that consistency.
The rebuilding of the squad in 2008 prompted a game of musical chairs with 37 players, including 13 newcomers, called up during Lievremont’s first Six Nations.
The 41-year-old’s tendency to tinker was castigated but Lievremont remained firm. By the end of the season he selected 58 names.
The eventual result is a strong and competitive squad with an awesome front five and a backbone of 10 players in key positions -- front row, backrow, halfbacks, inside centre and fullback.
Some of them are young, like 24-year-old prop Thomas Domingo, scrumhalf Morgan Parra (21) and flyhalf Francois Trinh-Duc (23) while others have more than 50 caps, such as Imanol Harinordoquy, probably the stand-out performer in the Six Nations and Yannick Jauzion.
Four of Lievremont’s players -- Parra, Harinordoquy, Mathieu Bastareaud and Thierry Dusautoir -- have been nominated for the Six Nations’ player of the year award alongside Shane Williams of Wales and Ireland’s Tommy Bowe.
The gamble on youngsters Parra and Trinh-Duc is clearly beginning to pay off and France now have a settled halfback pairing for the first time in many years.
Lievremont’s willingness to blood new talent has been balanced by an ability to revitalise more seasoned players who appeared to have lost their drive.
Clement Poitrenaud, Julien Bonnaire and even Harinordoquy and Jauzion have found a new lease of life under his guidance. Young centre Mathieu Bastareaud has also been helped to recover from his much-publicised misbehaviour in New Zealand and has been a major force.
Another of Lievremont’s successes is that the team’s training camp in Marcoussis is no longer dubbed ‘Marcatraz’ -- a reference to the former American prison Alcatraz -- as it had been under Laporte.
Team spirit is high and, while good results obviously breed confidence, the positive atmosphere has been underpinned by Lievremont’s reassurance that his players are “allowed errors and off days without fear of exclusion”.
After the final whistle in Saturday’s 12-10 win over England in Paris, Lievremont was entitled to say “mission accomplished” but in his mind he was probably adding “so far”.
The road to the World Cup in New Zealand is still long and stronger opponents await the French. Before that a June visit to Cape Town beckons for a game against a Springbok side looking to avenge three straight defeats by France.
(Reporting by Jean-Paul Couret, editing by Neil Maidment/Mitch Phillips; To query or comment on this story e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org) (email@example.com; +33 1 49 49 53 70; Reuters Messaging: firstname.lastname@example.org; For the new Reuters sports blog Left Field go to: blogs.reuters.com/sports)
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