What's gone wrong with 'directionless' France?

Guy Noves (AP)
Guy Noves (AP)

Paris - Once known for their flair and thrilling victories, France "must be one of the worst coached teams in the world", former South Africa and Italy coach Nick Mallett has said.

READ: Mallett: Boks, France technically poor

Defeat last weekend to the Springboks was France's fifth in a row and 13th in 20 matches under veteran coach Guy Noves since the he took over the reins following the 2015 Rugby World Cup.

But what has gone wrong for a team that was once a powerhouse, reaching three World Cup finals and who boasted the most successful Six Nations record until England's win earlier this year?

Following the 18-17 defeat last Saturday - France's fourth to South Africa this year alone - Mallett, the former Stade Francais coach, was scathing.

"They are absolutely directionless, they haven't got an exit strategy and just kick the ball out whenever we (South Africa) kicked it deep," the 61-year-old said in the SuperSport studio.

"Ball in hand, it's always one-off runners, they run sideways, they offload when they shouldn't. They are not a well-organised team."

So how has a team coached by a legendary figure in French rugby who led Toulouse to four European Cup triumphs and nine French titles, fallen so far off their perch?

To blame France's current woes entirely on Noves, whose record is dreadful with a win percentage of just 28, is perhaps unfair.

A look at the statistics shows this malaise has been building since Philippe Saint-Andre took over at the helm following the 2011 World Cup.

Over the last five years, France's win percentage against fellow tier one nations is just 32, compared with 56 in the five years prior to that.

Even more alarming is their record against the four southern hemisphere teams, with just two wins out of 20 in the last five years, compared to seven from 19 in the previous quinquennial.

Against their Six Nations counterparts they have dropped from 69 percent to 47, and this from a team that prior to that had won the Six Nations four times in six years from 2002-07.

Perhaps the most glaring clue to where it's all gone wrong is in terms of team selection.

Comparing continuity of personnel between Noves's France and the England team of Australian coach Eddie Jones, who took over at the same time, makes for sorry viewing.

Jones has more or less stuck to a core group of around 10 backs with only the two wingers changing regularly, and that mostly due to injuries.

His front row has barely changed either with five of the six in the match-day squad almost always the same.

His locks have changed due to an embarrassment of riches and injuries but are mostly made up from four outstanding candidates while in the back row Chris Robshaw is an ever-present and Billy Vunipola would be if fit.

Yet the France teams Noves put out in the 2016 Six Nations compared to the current November internationals have almost nothing in common.

Not one of the 10 backs from his first match against Italy was part of the match-day squads in either of the last two weeks' defeats to New Zealand and South Africa.

Only five of the 13 forwards remain the same, and only three of those started in both.

Compare Noves's win ratio of 28 percent to Jones's 95, and the benefits of stability seem obvious.

Saint-Andre attracted scorn and ridicule for the baffling number of halfback combinations (17) and players (83) he tested during his four-year, 45-match stewardship - he went from winning five of nine Tests against tier one nations in 2012 to one from 10 a year later - but Noves seems to have continued in that vein.

He started the 2016 Six Nations with a halfback pairing of Sebastien Bezy and Jules Plisson but ended it with Maxime Machenaud and Francois Trinh-Duc.

A year later Baptiste Serin and Camille Lopez were in the orchestrating booth, but this autumn he started with Antoine Dupont and Anthony Belleau - his ninth different pairing after 19 matches.

With so much instability in selection alone, is it any surprise that France appear, as Mallett said, "directionless".

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