The cracks within the French camp are getting wider at the Rugby World Cup, with coach Marc Lièvremont questioning the commitment, spirit and even the talent of players who walked out of a bonding session in the wake of a shocking loss to Tonga.
France have been widely criticized since the start of the tournament, and the groans of despair back home have grown into a cacophony of criticism since Saturday’s humiliating 19-14 loss to Tonga.
Lièvremont’s fraught relations with the French press hasn’t helped, yet he blames the players for a lack of cohesion.
Heading into the quarter-finals against England, Lièvremont says some players are spending too much time with their agents and not focusing properly on the matches.
“We live in a society where image matters,” said Lièvremont.
“I saw (some) players with their agents on the eve and after the game instead of regrouping as a team.”
Moments after the Tonga defeat, Lièvremont told a news conference of how he hoped some old-fashioned straight-talking over a few beers would help the players get their frustrations out in the open and move on.
To his disappointment, the initiative failed.
“I would have liked for us to gather around a few drinks yesterday, to talk, to share thoughts,” said Lièvremont.
“At the end of the press conference, I got us some beers to release the pressure. And we all split in different directions.”
There was little unity on the field against Tonga, either, in a performance that must rank among France’s worst ever.
If not for Tonga wasting scoring opportunities, the defeat - and embarrassment - would have been heavier.
“I thought I had experienced everything in terms of shame. But this time round, it’s been an extremely violent feeling again,” said Lièvremont.
“Each missed pass, each missed tackle, I took them as a deep personal failure.”
England, who beat France on their way to winning the Six Nations Championship earlier this year, are gaining in confidence after a fourth straight pool win, and Lièvremont is fretting over whether his key players can raise their game.
“I believe in the men, in a group who hopefully know how to pick themselves up,” he said.
“I have got experienced and talented players. But maybe not as talented as I thought.”
The French Rugby Union did little to help Lièvremont by naming his successor, former winger Philippe Saint-Andre, before the tournament had started.
This drew a worrying parallel with France’s football team, who announced before their disastrous World Cup campaign in South Africa last year that coach Raymond Domenech would be replaced after the tournament by Laurent Blanc.
Domenech’s already fragile authority was completely undermined when the players went on strike, refusing to climb down from the team bus for a training session before it drove away several minutes later.
Now, for the first time, Lièvremont has admitted he feels as isolated as Domenech. He thinks his players have nothing to be proud of with regards to the attitude they have shown so far at the tournament.
“They have their career to manage, and perhaps the media to please,” said Lièvremont said.
“People laughed at the French football players last year. But in some respect, we didn’t get off the bus either.”
Like Domenech, it is now Lièvremont who has been pilloried for his lack of success as a club coach.
Rather than go for an experienced club coach, the FFR promoted Lièvremont through the ranks when Bernard Laporte stepped down after the 2007 World Cup.
“For some, I might just be a ProD2 (Division Two) coach, absolutely not competent to train a team of the level of the national squad,” said Lièvremont.
“Some compare me with Raymond Domenech. You must know that I have got an immense respect for him. He did fight. I know what that means and, I repeat, I have absolutely no intention to give up.
“I’ve got my share of responsibilities,” Lièvremont continued.
“But do you sincerely think that it is because of my management that we failed to be committed (against Tonga)? There is a lack of collective dynamism.”
Domenech’s demise was sealed when then captain Patrice Evra led the players strike, destroying what little authority the manager had left.
For the time being, at least, Lièvremont still has the backing of his captain, Thierry Dusautoir.
“I want to give Thierry Dusautoir a message - only he is exemplary,” said Lièvremont.
“He spends a lot of energy to mobilize his troops.”