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Is a French rugby mutiny wishful thinking by English press?

AFP / Franck Fife | France's head coach Philippe Saint-André hosts a press conference at the Vale Resort in Hensol, south Wales, on October 12, 2015

France face the daunting task of meeting New Zealand in the Rugby World Cup quarter-final Sunday, a match they go into as very much the underdogs.

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But on top of overcoming the odds against the fearsome All Blacks, Les Bleus are also having to contend with a player “revolt”, an outright “mutiny”, a full-on “uprising” against their coach Philippe Saint-André, that is at least according to the British press.

“Les Bleus rebel against Philippe Saint-André days before Rugby World Cup quarter-final,” said the Telegraph, “France players ‘launch mutiny’,” read the Guardian’s headline, while the Daily Mail gleefully asked if France were “revolting at a World Cup again?” after being “comprehensively beaten by the Irish”.

Indeed, the 24-9 loss to Ireland in Cardiff last week, which meant France finished runners-up in their group and missed the opportunity of facing the somewhat easier quarter-final opposition of Argentina, has been a bitter pill to swallow and inevitably raised plenty of questions over the tactics, spirit and direction of this mercurial French side and its coach.

But a revolt against Saint-André? It would certainly tally with the surly, rebellious image of the French whose sportsmen, after all, have form in this regard with the national football team’s infamous strike during the 2010 World Cup.

'New Zealand-France seldom goes to script'

The idea of another embarrassing episode of sporting petulance by an old foe would also be a handy way to fill column inches for English journalists left unexpectedly bereft of material after their own country’s meek exit from the Rugby World Cup in the group stages.

Unfortunately, there is not much in the way of evidence to support it, save a couple of anonymous quotes in a French magazine little known for its sports coverage, along with an apparent misinterpretation of a French headline.

‘Not a leader of men’

Both the Guardian and the Telegraph base their articles on a report in the sports section of L’Obs (and not the nonexistent “L’Obs Sport” newspaper, which the two British dailies reference), a weekly known more for political and economic news.

In the article, Serge Raffy, an experienced journalist who has written several books on French politics and Fidel Castro, but none on rugby, quotes a source “close to several players” as saying the team has lost faith in Saint-André’s leadership.

"A large majority of the team complains about [Saint-André’s] lack of charisma,” the source says. “They view him as a good guy, as a former great player but not as a leader of men.”

Raffy uses the quotes to wonder if the players have now decided to take matters into their own hands rather than follow the instructions of the coach. He uses the term “autogestion”, meaning self-governance; the idea that the players are themselves fulfilling the duties that should be Saint-André’s.

“Autogestion” is a word that has become something of a running joke in French rugby ever since Les Bleus’ famous win against the odds over New Zealand in 1999, which was preceded by rumblings of dissent with the squad. It has cropped up almost every time the French team has underperformed in a tournament since, especially when coming up against the All Blacks.

Its reappearance once again, and in particular the articles it has spawned in the English media, was the subject of lament and ridicule among many French sports journalists on Friday.

“I bumped into Philippe Saint-André carrying rugby balls: ‘excuse me, I have training with the players’. What terrible ‘autogestion’,” was the sarcastic response of AFP’s rugby correspondent Jeremy Marot on Twitter.

“And the web’s infernal replica/echo machine has started up, in all languages,” tweeted L'Équipe’s Aurélien Bouisset, linking to the Telegraph article.

A call to revolt?

L'Équipe even went so far as to publish a full riposte to the L’Obs piece on its website Friday.

“And the myth of ‘autogestion’ has resurfaced,” it said, quoting a source close to Saint-André as dismissing the rumours as "a pack of lies".

Ironically, L'Équipe itself has been the source of some of the English media’s confusion, mostly for a headline it published on Tuesday reading “A call to revolt” that was the source of the Daily Mail’s article and also mentioned by the Telegraph.

The content of L'Équipe’s article, which neither of the two British newspapers mentioned, was a piece written by former France international Fabien Galthié, a member of the team that vanquished New Zealand in 1999.

He indeed calls for a rebellion, but it is not one against Saint-André. Rather, the revolt he wants to see from the French players is one against the preconceived notion that their cause is hopeless, that they are destined to lose. It is a revolt against a higher power, but that higher power is the All Blacks, not the coach.

“It is a characteristic of sport to refuse your status and to revolt against it,” he says.
Saint-André has himself invoked the word “revolt” in this context.

“If there's not a revolt for this match, you must change sport," he said Friday.

There is, however, a general call among the French sports pundits for the players to take greater responsibility on the pitch, to show greater initiative. Again, this is something the coach has said he very much wants to see.

"They have the freedom to take the initiative, to make passes or counter-attacks,” he said earlier this week. “The players must emancipate themselves, no one forbids them from playing.”

But, as France’s Metronews pointed out: “Emancipation is not the same as self-governance”.

The players themselves have also been quick to dismiss any talk of a rebellion.

“We are a team and we will continue our work as a team,” said Captain Thierry Dusautoir.

Speaking of the L’Obs report, he said: “I don't know where that's come from, but you need to ask the person who wrote the article to tell us more.”

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