European Champions Cup
As mentioned last week, this week we will be looking at the top three French sides performances in the second round of the European Champions Cup and see how this might have a bearing on the French squad selection for the forthcoming November series of Tests against the Southern Hemisphere nations. Looking at French performances in this tournament is always problematic as although French teams often do well, there is the question of how much actual homegrown talent is responsible for this success as opposed to the star studded international composition of their teams. The French club teams have seemingly limitless budgets which accounts for many of their top teams having in some cases as much as 60% of their squads being made up of non-French based players.
Ulster vs Toulon
Final Score – Toulon 23 – Ulster 13
Of the three fixtures we are looking at, this by far was the most entertaining. Ulster at home came out guns blazing but the international star studded Toulon were simply too good in the end despite a highly spirited comeback from Ulster in the second half that almost could have seen them pull off a draw.
As an outside observer, I almost felt that Ulster were the better side, and for much of the game thought they played a much more entertaining game. Toulon however when they played well were outstanding and did enough ultimately to get past a highly motivated Ulster. The two key French performances by Toulon for me were the remarkable figure of Mathieu Bastareaud and Maxime Mermoz teaming up in centre field. If French coach Philippe Saint-Andre is looking for a stellar centre pairing then this could be something to work with especially as these two play together week in week out.
Although an entertaining game and definitely the best of the three fixtures we looked at this weekend, as the French coaching staff pore over the stats of who to pick for November, other than an obvious centre pairing there is very little to work with from this match.
Clermont Auvergne vs Sale Sharks
Final Score – Clermont Auvergne 35 – Sale Sharks 3
Some great enterprising rugby from Clermont which totally eclipsed that offered by Sale characterised this match, and if I was Philippe Saint-Andre I would feel secure in the knowledge that France has a first class fly half in the form of Camille Lopez. Furthermore, Clermont’s forward pack boasts plenty of homegrown talent and these gentlemen will certainly be up for consideration after they made short work of Sale Sharks. Lastly, the always reliable Aurelien Rougerie added plenty of firepower to an already formidable backline once he came off the bench.
Clermont boasts some impressive international talent, but there is no doubt that much of the groundwork for this victory was founded on genuine French flair and old fashioned grit. Sale seemed to flounder for much of the second half of the match and once again this surely gives cause for concern for Stuart Lancaster as English teams struggle to face up to international opposition.
Montpellier vs Glasgow
Final Score – Glasgow 15 – Montpellier 13
This game was all about the continuing stellar rise of Glasgow through the European ranks, and how much good news this has for Scotland’s chances this November. Meanwhile another French team comprised largely of foreign based players, leaves French coaching staff with limited options of who to pick for November.
Apart from some questionable refereeing decisions which some may rightly argue could have denied Glasgow the penalty that ultimately won them the match, Glasgow did match Montpellier, particularly up front for the full 80 minutes. Montpellier were the only side to cross the white line and score a try, but Glasgow played a gritty and determined game which ultimately saw them emerge the victors, refereeing decisions aside. Montpellier’s forward pack had to work hard in trying to crack open Glasgow’s outstanding defence, and from a French perspective, Kelian Galletier at lock was particularly impressive and no doubt will be considered for selection in November by Saint-Andre and company.
So in short, from three matches I came away having few French names stand out as possible selections for Les Bleus in November, from France’s three best sides. There is still the powerhouse of Toulouse who have struggled for the first few months of France’s domestic season but are now starting to fire. However, with the animosity felt by many French players towards Saint-Andre’s coaching style and team management, selection for France this November will be a challenging endeavour.