All Blacks series learning curve for French coach
By rights, Philippe Saint-Andre should be feeling tres anxieux. His French team finished last in the Six Nations and are on the verge of getting swept 3-0 by the All Blacks, so the new era is not exactly flourishing.
But yesterday, after naming a starting XV featuring eight changes to face the All Blacks in New Plymouth tomorrow night, there was a notable self-assurance from the French coach as he spoke about the pressure to deliver a result for his increasingly concerned rugby public.
Saint-Andre's tour to New Zealand - the first three-test series against the All Blacks since 1968 - started promisingly enough in Auckland when Les Bleus were extremely gallant in their 23-13 defeat.
But after getting systematically dismantled by a vastly improved All Blacks outfit in Christchurch, the murmurings of discontent around the lack of improvement in this rebuilding era have surfaced again.
If Saint-Andre is concerned about external pressures, the great French winger of the '90s was disguising it brilliantly in Auckland yesterday ahead of his team's major training hitout.
"Some people understand, some don't," he shrugged. "When you need to change 10 world-class players who have retired or stopped for injury, guys with 50 or 60 caps, you need time.
"The first three games with this new team we won in November, so everybody says 'it will be a great future'. But at the moment it's very painful. At this level when you make a silly mistake you are punished.
"I like the character of the guys. They give 100 per cent. For two tests we have had more possession than the All Blacks. So the guys can keep the ball, they can play rugby, they can create opportunities. But we didn't finish and we have big problems when we lost the ball to have the same urgency."
But the coach who succeeded Marc Lievremont following the 2011 World Cup final called for patience as he gathers the experience his young charges need.
"These guys will be mature for the next World Cup. When you are French coach you work for four years and when you rebuild a team your target is to have players with big maturity for the next World Cup.
"With French rugby when you don't deliver you are under pressure. But this is my job. I take the pressure, I take the criticism, because if you don't want to be criticised you don't accept to be French coach. You stay at home and play with your kids."
Saint Andre's lot has to be factored in. He doesn't have the access to his players that, say, Steve Hansen does.
According to French calculations, they have their players for 84 days of their season, compared to the 145 days Hansen spends with his All Blacks.
And while New Zealand's leading players claim to be worn out by having to play up to 30 games in a season, their French equivalents are logging 10 more outings.
"We have guys who have played 40 games, 39 games, and then we bring a few guys in who have played seven games in the year," said Saint-Andre. "We have a few players who play too many games and a lot of young talent who have potential but don't have game time in the French league."
For all his challenges, Saint Andre felt like the tour had been "a success"
"A lot of guys tell us they learn a lot, and some we feel have the potential. This will bring them confidence to be better and have more game time with their clubs next year."
The French coach yesterday introduced four new faces in the pack and four in the backline for New Plymouth. With Frederic Michalak (shoulder) and Luis Picamoles (hip) already home, the remaining six changes were made to introduce freshness and further expose young talent.
His halves combination of Jean Marc Doussain and Remi Tales have just three caps between them, compared to the All Blacks' 164 shared by Piri Weepu and Dan Carter.
"It's the last game of a long, long season and our guys need to have a go, they need to respect New Zealand but don't respect them too much, and they must be proud to wear this French jersey."
FRANCE: Brice Dulin, Marc Andreu, Florian Fritz, Wesley Fofana, Yoann Huget, Remi Tales, Jean Marc Doussain; Antonie Claassen, Damien Chouly, Thierry Dusautior (c), Yoann Maestri, Alexandre Flanquart, Nicolas Mas, Benjamin Kayser, Thomas Domingo. Reserves: Dimitri Szarzewski, Eddy Ben Arous, Luc Ducalcon, Sebastien Vahaamahina, Bernard Le Roux, Maxime Machenaud, Camille Lopez, Mathieu Bastareaud.