Story highlights

French rugby team endures run of poor form

Captain calls recent games a "disaster"

Club sides, meanwhile, enjoy European success

CNN  — 

It was a chance to cause a shake-up in rugby’s pecking order – for Japan, an emerging nation on the rugby map, to overturn France in Paris.

A late missed conversion from Yu Tamura, however, saved Les Bleus’ blushes. The November Test ended in a 23-23 draw, ensuring France wasn’t condemned to the same fate as South Africa at the 2015 World Cup.

The result, however, was symptomatic of larger problems afflicting France, a rugby-proud nation with a rich history of success in the sport.

While its wealthy club sides have thrived in recent years, the national team has endured a torrid run of form.

“The results are extremely disappointing,” French captain Guilhem Guirado, who has lead the side since 2015, tells CNN World Rugby.

“It’s very difficult, especially as a captain. I’m so frustrated about this autumn tour [in November 2017] which was a disaster, honestly.

“We can see that French clubs are competitive, even at the European level, but the issue is that we don’t manage to gather around the national team.”

Guirado takes the ball on against South Africa during the Autumn tests, a game France lost 17-18.

A month after the Japan game, head coach Guy Noves was sacked after leading France to just seven wins in 21 games and replaced by Jacques Brunel, a former Italy coach who was part of the French backroom staff from 2001-2007.

His immediate test comes in the Six Nations, which for France kicks off with a tough game against Ireland on February 3.

“We are waiting for this Six Nations to make amends,” says Guirado, “and, most importantly, to show that we are proud to play for team France in these upcoming five matches.”

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A different story

In recent years, French rugby fans have become more accustomed to cheering overseas players than their own countrymen.

Take Jonny Wilkinson. When the Englishman waved goodbye to an illustrious playing career in 2014, he did so as thousands of French fans sang his country’s national anthem in the Stade de France.

After retiring from national duty, Wilkinson enjoyed five years at Toulon where he endeared himself to the supporters on the French Riviera. “Sir Jonny,” as he affectionately became known, steered the side to two European Cup victories and a Top 14 title.

South African winger Bryan Habana, who played alongside Wilkinson in each of those finals, goes all far as calling him the “most-loved Englishman I’ve ever seen in France.”

Jonny Wilkinson (left) celebrates winning the Heineken Cup with Bryan Habana and a number of Toulon fans in 2014.

Both Habana and Wilkinson joined Toulon as part of an ambitious project, driven by millionaire owner Mourad Boudjellal, to bring the world’s best players to the South of France. Boudjellal succeeded, and a bulging trophy cabinet is just one part of that success.

“The crowds just totally embrace the flare, the love of the game, and the passion,” says Habana.

“Just to get a glimpse of what this team has done for the city, for the supporters, of what they meant through this region – it’s really special.”

Habana, who scored 67 tries in 124 matches for South Africa, joined a side dubbed rugby’s “galacticos”

In the Toulon squad that won the 2014 European Cup final, for example, 10 players had won over 50 caps for their countries – four South Africans, two Australians, and one each from England, Argentina, New Zealand and Italy.

It’s a trend that has emerged in French over the past decade. Roughly 43% of Top 14 players are thought to be foreign, and over half the players at four clubs have come from overseas.

It’s brought star quality to the domestic league, but has it come at a cost?

‘A constant feudal system’

The paradox of French rugby – that club success has been pitted against poor form for the national side – hasn’t slipped Habana’s notice.

“From a personal point of view, seeing how many foreign players are apparently in the French leagues, the junior levels are probably not as professional as the rest of the world,” he says.

“Not that there isn’t a junior level, it’s just that constant feudal system of getting into the senior teams is really difficult given how many top class, world class players come from outside of France.

“I think getting that balance of bringing world class players to improve the situation and to teach the young French players how to be professional, but also make sure that those youngsters then follow through in the system and don’t get lost.”

The salaries in France are amongst the highest club rugby has to offer, with All Black Dan Carter reportedly earning over $114,000 a month with Racing 92.

While some countries refuse to pick players based overseas – England and Toulon flanker Steffon Armitage being a long-standing example – lucrative deals at French clubs can prove a popular end-of-career option for retiring internationals.

French Rugby Federation president Bernard Laporte has said the number of foreign players in match-day squads will be heavily reduced by July 2020 – he is hoping for five out of 23, while the club’s owners want seven.

Change could be in the air for French rugby.

And amidst the string of disappointing results on the field and the managerial reshuffle off it came the news that France will host the World Cup in 2023.

“[It] will be a very important event for France, and hopefully for the national team as well,” says Guirado.

“I’ve been lucky enough to play in two World Cups in my career, and these are the moments to remember. The World Cup is always magic.”

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In the short-term, Les Bleus could do with some of that magic now. The Six Nations beckons, and with it the opportunity to overhaul a miserable run of form.