Despite never lifting the Webb Ellis Cup, France have an enviable record at Rugby World Cups.
Three-time finalists, in 1987, 1999 and 2011, Les Bleus’ name is writ large in the competition’s annals but the same cannot be said for the tournament’s equivalent in sevens.
A best finish of fifth at Rugby World Cup Sevens is a disappointing return for such a proud rugby-playing nation, albeit one without a huge history in the shortened format.
But with sevens’ place in the Olympic sport now guaranteed, until 2024 at the very least, the Fédération Française de Rugby (FFR) has decided to bring in one of the best, if not the best, in the business in a bid to up their game.
Ben Ryan, an Olympic gold medal and HSBC World Rugby Sevens Series winner with Fiji, has come on board as a coaching consultant on an 18-month contract through to the completion of RWC Sevens 2018 in San Francisco, with the aim of turning France into a side to be feared on the biggest stage.
How far Ryan can take France is yet to be known but, having seen the side perform at the Oktoberfest Sevens in Munich a fortnight ago, the Englishman’s first impressions of the squad are favourable.
“I’ve seen the boys training and in camp and in some of their games, and I’ve obviously looked back at their games last season and, in my opinion, they are of the same standard as the English players,” Ryan said.
“I see the potential to be a top four or top five team. They have that in them. I’m not saying that it will happen immediately but the potential is there.
“It always takes some time for new coaches to stamp their mark on a team but it certainly all looks very positive because there is a desire from everybody in that group to get better and that is what I want to see.”
Ryan believes that ironing out the inconsistency of performance that has dogged France in the past will be one of the keys to unlocking their potential.
“I think if you look back to my time with England, and I was to write a report on the French sevens team, I’d say they had some good players but they were incredibly inconsistent. If you got a couple of scores ahead then generally their heads went down and the game was won. It wasn’t always the case but there was just a real level of inconsistency,” he explained.
“At the same time, we could see in some tournaments, and it happened in Dubai and in the South African legs occasionally, where the French team were on a roll and they started to get confidence and they started to win games. A lot of this is linked to their mental attitude.
“Perhaps there is that subconscious feeling that they are not up to the standard of Australia, New Zealand, Fiji, South Africa, England … and that they should be in that second group, but that is 100 per cent not the case as far as I can see.
“I have seen the coaches, the medical and management staff and the players and they are all at a standard that can compete with the likes of England etc. So, it is about application, confidence, about working hard on the small things. I am hoping that I will be able to add some technical areas that I think we can improve on.”
Behind Ryan’s genial exterior lies a steely determination to help France’s players make their mark on the world stage.
“I am at a point in my career where I am not pussy-footing around, I will tell them exactly what I see. If I think they are doing something wrong, I will tell them. If the planning is wrong, I will tell them. If I think that there is something wrong on the training field or with their conditioning, I will tell them.
“I think that I will be a good quality controller I guess, to make sure they don’t go down long roads of training or planning that won’t bring results. It is quite exciting really and I am enjoying my time with the players.
“I could immediately see that they are a good bunch that I really want to do well. They have some ups and downs but if we can get to some very late stages of tournaments and improve the World Series standings this year and have a really good Hong Kong and World Cup then it will lay the foundations for the following year which is a very important one, with Olympic qualification.”
Cambridge graduate Ryan helped England to reach new milestones during his six years in charge of the team, before going on to win the HSBC World Rugby Sevens Series twice and an Olympic gold medal as coach of Fiji.
But the Rugby World Cup Sevens title is one notable omission from his glittering CV. To do so with France would probably go down as one of the finest achievements of his career, and Ryan admits it is a challenge that excites him.
“The FFR spoke to me at the end of last season and they asked about my availability. They told me that they were making some changes in the sevens programme and they were hoping that I would be able to come and help make those changes as easy and as positive as possible,” he said.
“There isn’t a history of sevens in France, unlike Fiji where all the players will be playing tournaments all the time. In France there isn’t a huge amount of sevens played and I know that the FFR are trying to address that and add tournaments and competitions.
“It’s a really good challenge for me for many reasons. I’ll need to get my French up to standard – by the end of the season I want to spend a whole day talking in French – and it’s a new culture.
“I am contracted with the FFR until just after the World Cup in July and at that point both sides will look at it and see whether this is something we can continue. From my point of view, I hope it will.”
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