A French rugby revolution is bad news for the Wallabies at the World Cup

True, it’s been 35 years or so since you could find me kissing blokes beneath the rugby grandstand … but why not a few more for the road?

Greeting me at our old stomping ground on a flying visit to my old French rugby club of Club Athletique Briviste a fortnight back, were my old teammates Jean-Luc Joinel and Didier Faugeron – so of course we kissed each other on both cheeks as in days of yore. And they were eager to show me just how truly professional our rugby club is these days, just how much things have changed.

When I played there for four years in the late 1980s, our team, C.A.B, was one of the best in France, and I was the club’s first foreign player. We trained three evenings a week for a total of five or six hours, and the one concession to scientific equipment to help us in the dungeon-like dressing room was a set of scales which – I can say with great authority – mercifully cut out at 118kg.

In terms of extra help to win on Sundays, it was part of club legend that one of the supporters had buried a bottle of water from Lourdes, behind the goal posts. But now look!

Brive, on the lower tiers of France’s Top 14 competition, has a budget of about $A30 million to play with, mostly devoted to putting the best 15 players on the field every week they can, together with running the juniors and women’s team. The facilities they have to do it with, the expert staff employed to help them, the intense ambience, was like nothing I could have imagined for Brive, and in fact like nothing I have ever seen before.

The muddy field we used to train on? It is now a picture-perfect version of Astro-turf, instantly drained and always perfectly coiffed. On it now, at 2.30 in the afternoon, going through a variety of drills is a collection of French, Welsh, Irish, English, Kiwi, South African and Fijian players, many of them internationals. True, they are not individually on the $1.5 million a year they say the best paid players in France are on, but they are well looked after for all that.

Brive players attend a video session at the club.Credit:Brive Rugby Club

Today, as every day, they have been here since 7.30 in the morning, and their every move on the training paddock is being filmed and analysed, in real time, but we’ll get to that. Given they are playing the champion side La Rochelle the following Sunday, squad members who have been given a briefing and footage of how that team conducts their lineouts are going through their paces, as the announced Brive team counters them. Again and again and again. Four coaching staff are around them as they do so, with about 40 members of the public watching. Off in the distance, the back line is doing whatever it is that back lines do – I didn’t understand then, and don’t understand now.

(Back then, when I tried to give our three-quarter centre Eric Blanc my ideas on how our back-line should have a flatter alignment and run loop-the-loop a la the Ellas, he replied, Mais Fizzee, Fizzee, qu’est-ce que tu sais? T’es un avant – tu vois le match avec ton cul. Or “Fitzy, Fitzy, what would you know? You are a forward – you see the match through your arse”.)

The training goes on, with Didier and Jean-Luc watching intently. Whereas back in our day we had two coaches and a physio, things have changed. Didier is the coordinateur sportif of the club under the direction of le directeur general, and working closely with le manager and the directeur sportif du centre de formation. Jean-Luc, who played for France more than 50 times, is on the board, and a conseiller du president, adviser to the president of the club.

Would I like to see the set-up under the grandstand? I would. It is about half a hectare of rooms fitted out for sporting excellence. In the first room, three blokes are staring intently at screens, upon which I can see the training still going on outside. Every now and then they pause the footage, and draw a circle around some flaw in technique they have spotted. Up in the top right corner of the screen we can see just how many metres each of the forwards have run today, courtesy of the chips each player has wired into his jersey. As we chat, the head coach of the forwards comes in, gets a verbal report, and then heads off home – to watch, and analyse, the very training session he has just presided over.

Old school … Peter FitzSimons playing for Brive.

We move on.

Here is the salle de bottes, where, once the players leave the field they can leave their boots on the rack, and the heat will dry them, while they are in the nearby jacuzzi or ice baths. Here is the physio room, where injured players are being worked on by four – count em, four – physios. Just along the hall is the dining room where the players get two nutritionally balanced meals a day, prepared by chefs under the direction of dieticians. And there is the gym where the juniors are punching weights with a passion that scares, in the hope that one day they can make the senior team.

In the meeting room where the coach addresses them, each chair is marked with their position on the team, so that the props, second-rowers, troisieme ligne and so forth are always in exactly the same chairs. (I have no clue how this helps the team perform better on Sunday, but it is what they do.) The five or six hours a week we used to do, is now being done by full-time professional rugby players, putting in at least 40 hours a week of preparation for one game of 80 minutes.

Yes, but Didier, will these blokes form bonds with each other so strong they’ll automatically kiss each other on the cheek 35 years later, like we do? Or is the lien entre professionals more clinical than that? Didier smiles. And has to go. He has an analysis meeting, with the coach, in five minutes. I am guessing he will have to sit in the coordinateur sportif chair.

As I say, I came away reeling. How can we in Australia compete with all this at the coming World Cup, being held in France from September? After all, if this is the preparation the players are getting at club level – for a club that is well down the ladder and might be relegated at the end of the season – just what is it like at international level?

How can we compete?

I am not sure, but I still think the answer might be the Ellas! That is, we are never going to beat Les Bleus with a more professional preparation because it just ain’t possible. But surely players this well-prepared must be vulnerable to spontaneity, derring-do, dash, flash, mash – anything but cash, because we certainly ain’t going to beat them in the last one. Maybe, just maybe, the way forward in Australia is to bring on players who can’t be analysed because not even they don’t know what they are going to do next!

Meantime, Didier and Jean-Luc asked me to look out for emerging players in Australia. I’m on it. There are already some leaguies I like the look of. And with a budget double that of the Roosters, I know they have the cash.

Twitter: @Peter_Fitz

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