By Julien Pretot
MARCOUSSIS, France (Reuters) - More than two years since Philippe Saint-Andre took charge, France do not seem to know where they are heading as the 2015 World Cup approaches, having used nearly a dozen halfback pairings and more than a dozen third-row combinations.
World Cup finalists in 2011, France finished fourth in the 2012 Six Nations and took the wooden spoon last year. And even if they go on to win this year's championship, they do not seem to have a clear strategy.
Saint-Andre has been tinkering with his team and has yet to find the perfect scrumhalf-flyhalf combination, having tried 11 starting permutations during his 28 games in charge.
Maxime Machenaud, Frederic Michalak, Jules Plisson, Morgan Parra, Francois Trinh-Duc, Remi Tales, Jean-Marc Doussain, Camille Lopez, Dimitri Yachvili and Lionel Beauxis have all started since 2012, but which pair will be chosen for the first World Cup game next year is anyone's guess.
Asked how France could improve and find their rhythm with so many changes being made, wing Yoann Huget grinned and said: "Ask the coach."
Les Bleus had a terrible 2013, finishing the Six Nations with the wooden spoon after managing only one win against Scotland. They enjoyed only one victory, against Tonga, in November, but that was on the back of three defeats against the All Blacks in June.
In the current Six Nations, victories against England and Italy were followed by a 27-6 thrashing by Wales and a narrow, last-gap 19-17 win in Scotland last Saturday.
To add to their difficulties, they have not been their usual dominant selves at the scrum following rule changes made by the International Rugby Union (IRB), who see the phase less as a ground-gaining possibility than as a way of launching play.
"I have been doing the same thing in the scrum for 10 years and now they change everything," prop Nicolas Mas told reporters.
"It's complicated. The scrum is less important than it used to be. They want to make it softer and softer. How far are they going to go in that direction?"
The biggest problem for the French players, however, is that they lack practice time.
"The Irish team play together almost every weekend. The forwards play together and the backs play together apart from (Jonathan) Sexton, who plays in France," wing Maxime Medard told reporters.
"When you see (Brian) O'Driscoll, Sexton and (Gordon) D'Arcy, it's impressive, it's like they're in a club together. They can pass the ball with their eyes closed."
He added: "They have experienced players, they play often together, and it's true that their thing is that they play without pressure in their clubs.
"I think it explains why it's different in France, where there is so much pressure."
Rugby is not the top sport in France, and Medard said it enjoys a greater significance in Britain, Ireland and in the southern hemisphere.
"In France, rugby is not the number one sport at school, which is different in New Zealand, where they make nice passes, they can kick, and they're only 12," Medard said.
"It's the same in Ireland. In England there is football but rugby is not too far behind."
France, however, should have more ambitions, according to former coach Bernard Laporte, who criticized Saint-Andre.
"When I heard him speak after the Scotland game, I had the impression to hear Jacques Brunel. But Brunel is the Italy coach! Oh, it's the France team, wake up!," the Toulon boss told a radio show.
Toulouse manager Guy Noves, however, was more cautious, as he is aware that anything is possible with the French.
"We long had our doubts on (former coach) Marc Lievremont's vision of rugby. But at the end of the day, France are almost world champions (in 2011)," he said.
"You can completely miss certain games and be in the semis or in the final at the World Cup."
Until then, Les Bleus, third in the table, can win the Six Nations if they beat Ireland on Saturday at the Stade de France and England fail to beat Italy away in their final game - a combination of results that appears unlikely.
(Reporting by Julien Pretot; Editing by Stephen Wood)