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France Rugby League Coach must dig France out of group of death

Wakefield's head coach Richard Agar
Wakefield's head coach, Richard Agar, has been amazed by the thirst for French success in the 2013 World Cup. Photograph: Craig Brough/Action Images

It was an unusual conversation for Richard Agar, ahead of Sunday's Yorkshire derby between his Wakefield Trinity team and the early-season Super League pacesetters Huddersfield, to wonder aloud about the French translation for a group of death. For the rest of this season Agar will combine his Wakefield role with preparing the France national team for the World Cup this autumn, when they have been drawn with Papua New Guinea, Samoa and New Zealand.

This particular groupe de la mort has been made considerably less perilous by the fact that three teams will qualify for the quarter-finals under the complicated and contrived format of the competition. But that will still require France to win at least one of their three group games to improve on a miserable recent tournament record in which they were knocked out of the 2008 World Cup by Fiji, and then displaced by Wales from the 2011 Four Nations series.

"That's probably one of the biggest differences between the Wakefield and France jobs, having such a specific target," says Agar, who is confident he has the time to combine the two. "At Wakefield it's about consistency of performance, and the position on the league table will look after itself. With France, we've got to get into those quarter-finals. It's not going to be easy given the quality of teams we'll have to play. But I'm excited about the challenge, and the quality of the players we'll have, obviously mostly from the Catalan Dragons. To be involved with the national team of a rugby league nation with as much history as the French is a great honour, especially in a World Cup year."

The World Cup arguably means more to France than to any other country in which the code is played. It was their dynamic young administrator, Paul Barrière, who was the driving force behind their staging of the first tournament in 1954, providing the financial guarantees necessary to persuade the reluctant Australians to take part. Even in the last World Cup staged in the northern hemisphere in 2000, which was a mostly miserable experience on this side of the Channel, the games in France provided rare highlights, especially a 28-8 victory for the national team over Tonga on a sunny Wednesday afternoon in Carcassonne when Barrière witnessed the unveiling of a statue to the great chain-smoking full-back Puig "Pipette" Aubert before the match.

"You could tell how much the World Cup means to them when I went over there for a press conference this week," Agar added. "They held it at La Dépêche [du Midi], a big Toulouse media company, and the interest was phenomenal."

The Toulouse location was down to Carlos Zalduendo, a former France international who also served as the city's chief of police, and who now holds a new title, as the president of the French federation, to add to his long-standing position as the wearer of rugby league's finest moustache. But most of Agar's attention will be focused on the Perpignan stronghold of the Dragons, who will inevitably provide the bulk of France's squad.

Trent Robinson, the French-speaking Australian who made such a positive impression in the last two seasons as coach of the Dragons before being lured back to Sydney by the Roosters last autumn, recommended Agar for the position, and Robinson's former assistant Jérôme Guisset – the prop who played for Canberra, Warrington and Wigan before returning home to Perpignan five years ago – has already been appointed to his support staff.

After opening their World Cup campaign against Papua New Guinea at Hull KR – where the Kumuls can expect local support to be drummed up by the cult hero Stanley Gene – France head home to face New Zealand in Avignon and finally Samoa in Perpignan. "New Zealand are going to be the favourites, obviously," Agar concedes. "They're the World Cup holders, they're getting stronger all the time and they've got superstars like Benji Marshall and maybe even Sonny Bill Williams – and imagine the interest there would be in him down in the south of France after his time in rugby union with Toulon. They're expecting full stadiums down in Avignon and Perpignan, and they'll be desperate to see France do well."

Agar, a native of Featherstone who has been steeped in the game since drinking cherryade from the Challenge Cup as a lad – his father, Allan, coached Rovers to their famous Wembley win against Hull in 1983 – has been determined to improve on his schoolboy French for a while, and hopes to be reasonably fluent by October. "If they're giving me the opportunity to coach the national team, it's up to me to challenge myself," he added.

But for the next seven months, Wakefield's bid to build on last season's surprise play-off appearance will remain his priority. They have followed a false start at Bradford with consecutive victories over Hull KR and London Broncos – but Huddersfield, who have already beaten St Helens and Wigan, will provide a much sterner test.... The Guardian
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