.But now, with a match coming up Saturday in Paris against Ireland that could close a disastrous season with yet another defeat, a season that has included a running war of words with England, humiliation and outrage in the World Cup, two straight losses to England and Scotland in the Five Nations tournament, charges of excessive violence and counter claims of discrimination and management shake-ups, many are wondering whether that once famous French flair has flown, never to return.
.The team's manager, Robert Paparemborde, says this Five Nations tournament, in which Wales plays Scotland on Saturday in another season finale, has revealed the weaknesses of France's team, made up overwhelmingly of young and inexperienced players at the international level.
.Bernard Lapasset, president of the French Rugby Federation, says: "We are preparing a new generation of players for the next World Cup. That can't happen overnight."
.They say the legacy of such rugby greats as the Boniface brothers, Guy and André, of Joseph (Jo) Maso, Jean Gachassin, Didier Codorniou and Serge Blanco, all spectacular natural runners and ballhandlers, has only been mislaid, not lost.
.When Jacques Fouroux began his 10-year reign as coach in 1981, he started favoring more powerful, muscular players - in an attempt to emulate New Zealand's nearly unbeatable All Blacks - over those with exceptional ball-handling skills. Still, the golden era of Fouroux, when the team won three Five Nations titles, two of them Grand Slams, was built in large part of the skills and flair of such as Maso and Blanco. But in the provinces, his penchant for muscle was having what is now seen as a bad effect.
.France's new players are in the more powerful, muscular mode, but the team is not winning.
."We don't want to go too far in the other direction," Paparemborde said. "There needs to be an equilibrium between the two. But the changes won't come quickly. Our young people began playing like this because they identified with what was happening on the national team."
.After the World Cup last fall, when France lost to England in the quarterfinals, five players retired, including Blanco, the team captain, and two other stalwarts, Pascal Ondarts and Pierre Berbizier, the latter of whom is on temporary contract as the team's coach pending this season's results. The rugby federation also went through a management shake-up, with Lapasset taking the helm.
.Then, during the Five Nations match against England on Feb. 15, Gregoire Lascube and Vincent Moscato were expelled by an Irish referee, Steve Hilditch, for stamping on an English player and head butting in a scrum. Never before had two players on a team been expelled in a Five Nations match.
.Lascube and Moscato were suspended from rugby for six months by the French federation, but allegations were also made that the French team had been unfairly punished for acts that commonly occur in international competition.
.But even before that, the tension between the French and English teams had been running high because of two incidents during their World Cup quarterfinal.
.After France lost, its coach, Daniel Dubroca, created headlines when he angrily grabbed the collar of a New Zealand referee, David Bishop. The London-based International Board issued a highly critical statement of the French Rugby Federation for not disciplining Dubroca, who later resigned.
.Then René Hourquet, who was France's leading referee, intensified the furor by abruptly resigning in mid-tournament because of what he said was a deliberate slighting of French officials when he was the only Frenchman among the 12 referees chosen for the final games.
."Two of the chosen referees were injured," he said bitterly by telephone from his home in Carpentras in southern French. "The people responsible for that decision did not act professionally."
.Hourquet had since become head of the commission overseeing French referees and sits on the rugby federation's 12-member board.
.He is still angry about the latest France-England run-in, pinning most of the blame on what he said was the "vomit journalism" of British tabloids, which called the French players animals and thugs.
."It is only in Western movies that one side is all good and the other all bad," he said. "We are not the only ones to be blamed for what happened."
.Paparemborde, who says that he "reacts very violently" to suggestions that rugby has become more violent in France than in other countries, says: "It is just a little different. This stems from our distinct culture and identity."
.Lapasset says that problems occur "when people try to measure the superiority of one tradition over another."
."One isn't better than the other," he said. "Ten years ago, England didn't have a very good team. Now it is good, and we are the ones with an inexperienced team."
.After the two French players were expelled Feb. 15, Lapasset said, he wrote a letter to the organizers of the Five Nations tournament urging them to have patience with the young French players until they develop.
.But for the moment, Hourquet said, dialogue with the London-based Rugby Union is difficult. "I don't get the impression that we have anything that really interests that organization," he said, echoing many in France who criticize the English for trying to be the keepers of the game.
.In the meantime, Berbizier, the temporary coach, said that the first meeting and practice after the loss to Scotland was characterized by a venting of frustrations and a lot of soul-searching.
.His team, he said, has definite problems with timing, moving the ball and overall comprehension of the game - fundamentals that are unlikely to be resolved in time for the last tournament match against Ireland.
."We were disappointed with some of the more experienced players," Berbizier said. And referring to Franck Mesnel, Jean-Baptiste Lafond and the captain, Philippe Sella, he added, "They didn't do enough individual preparation."
.So where has the French flair gone?
."I think England had taken some of it," Paparemborde said with a smile. "It's not only a natural quality. We may have thought that just because we were French we could play better than other countries."
.Then he added: "We're going to have to work hard and be creative to get it back. It's not going to fall from the sky."