Foreigners cast blight on France's Rugby World Cup hopes

Pirate Irwin
Toulon's Australian centre Matt Giteau scores a try during the European Cup final against Saracens in Cardiff on May 24, 2014
View photos
Toulon's Australian centre Matt Giteau scores a try during the European Cup final against Saracens in Cardiff on May 24, 2014 (AFP Photo/Geoff Caddick)

Paris (AFP) - French club rugby may be flourishing both domestically and on the European front but for embattled national coach Philippe Saint-Andre it is no reason to celebrate as he blames the dominance of foreign players in key positions for his inability to put together a side that looks capable of challenging for the World Cup next year.

However, the 47-year-old -- whose overall record is a mediocre 11 victories, two draws and 16 defeats in his 29 Test matches since taking over from Marc Lievremont after the 2011 World Cup -- is fast running out of sympathy for his views as a strong counter-attack has been led by the verbose Toulon duo of owner Mourad Boudjellal and head coach Bernard Laporte.

Saint-Andre -- who was no shrinking violet to signing star foreign names when he was head coach of Toulon -- does have to contend with over 200 foreign players in the 14 top tier sides.

There has been a slight dip this close season with around 20 new foreign faces arriving as opposed to the 40-odd last year, but it will do nothing to alleviate Saint-Andre's problems at tight-head prop and fly-half.

Also when the players of the quality of Ben Mowen decide that it is worth giving up the captaincy of Australia and a chance of playing at the World Cup for a spot at powerhouses Montpellier it highlights the attractions of the French league.

"The number of overseas players is an issue," Saint-Andre told the Daily Telegraph in January.

"I am not against foreign players, I signed them myself at Toulon -- Steffon Armitage, Matt Giteau and others -- and I understand that culture.

"The Top 14 is a cash machine and success is everything. You must win to get a return. There are now limits set on non-French players but that is for the squad not in the starting team.

"Look, in last year's European Cup final between Clermont and Toulon, there were only three French players available to me. Toulon had more English players than French!"

Saint-Andre's opinion is not without its supporters with rugby bible Midi Olympique devoting a lot of space to the issue, though, at the same time they don't go as far as to say all his woes are because of that.

The much-maligned Lievremont encountered the same problem but still managed to win a Six Nations Grand Slam during his tenure and somehow to the amazement of many get them to the World Cup final where they were judged to have been slightly unlucky to lose 8-7 to the All Blacks.

Laporte, who guided Toulon to the double of a successful defence of their European Cup trophy and the Top 14 title last term, didn't encounter a similar problem when he was coach of France from 1999-2007 but he has little sympathy with Saint-Andre's plight.

"When Philippe Saint-Andre was at Toulon, he recruited a dozen foreigners," Laporte told Midi Olympique.

"And at that moment, he did not care for the France team! Now when he says that foreigners are why France are losing, I say stop. Where are we going?

"I've always said the France team must be the priority. Reading our current results makes me scream... we have become the Spain of rugby!"

The 50-year-old -- who had a brief spell post the France job as Sports Minister -- even conceded that the old enemy England had made more progress than the French since the last World Cup.

"There is something that concerns me. In 2011, at the end of a disastrous World Cup, the English were in the same position as us, but they were able to ask the right questions. Suddenly, their national team is playing well," said Laporte, who saw England beat his France side in two successive World Cup semi-finals.

"They are not the best nation in the world, but it is consistent progress when we have not advanced one metre."