France are in an unprecedented trophy-drought and decade-long malaise, but when they stepped off the Principality pitch on Saturday as winners, they entered into uncharted territory. Could rugby’s greatest enigma have been solved?
For as long as people have been watching sport, France have been characterised as unpredictable. Inconsistent. Erratic.
It’s one of the oldest and most-used clichés in sport: ‘Which France will turn up today?’ ‘You never know what you’re going to get with France’. But cliché’s are so because of the degree of truth within them.
From their 88 Championship campaigns in history, France have won 17 titles outright, while also picking up 18 Wooden Spoons – one as recently as 2013.
The nature of their performances has produced near inexplicable results. A 1999 Six Nations Wooden Spoon was followed by participation in the 1999 Rugby World Cup final – and that after one of the greatest shocks in the history of the sport to beat New Zealand in the semi-final from 14 points down.
In the sport’s first showpiece tournament in 1987, France beat pre-tournament favourites Australia to make the final, while 2007 saw Les Bleus – who had earlier been dispatched by Argentina on their own turf – knock out one of the most talented All Black sides ever at the quarter-final stage.
At the 2011 Rugby World Cup, France suffered the indignation and humiliation of a loss to minnows Tonga in the pool stages, before then reaching the final and, but for a derisory refereeing performance from Craig Joubert, would have beaten the All Blacks on Kiwi soil and become world champions.
After England, France have the second biggest playing base in the world, but as a team, they are and have been an utter contradiction in terms. And have been so from week-to-week, or even within Test matches. An enigma – at once world beaters, the next inexcusably poor.
For all their latent capriciousness and erraticism, however, France never went longer than a four-year period after their maiden outright title in 1959 without trophy success. Until now.
Their present malaise extends back a decade to their most recent success in 2010.
For all the unpredictability and excitement France offered in the past, the 2010’s proved utterly predictable in the sense that Les Bleus never remotely challenged for a Six Nations title, finishing in the top two just once, and that was in 2011.
There was still an abundance of talent and skill to pick from, but the Test side was dying, while over the same time frame, French clubs appeared in the final of the European Cup on eight occasions.
Akin to football’s Premier League in England, the Top 14 in France and its success in attracting the best players from around the world inadvertently seemed to damage the national side.
An enormous influx of foreign players and a shift in style from an attacking, flowing brand of rugby to one dominated by huge packs, witnessed a sea change in the French game. There was still the same, largely emotionally-dependent unpredictability, but nowhere near the equivalent level of past success.
It translated into acute frustration on and off the pitch and France’s most recent coach before the current set-up, Jacques Brunel, was referred to widely by the media as ‘Papi’ – translated as Grandpa. The respect was gone.
The 2023 Rugby World Cup will be hosted by France, and there’s a sense that all within the Federation and the country are exceptionally keen to avoid an embarrassment. And so, vast changes have been made.
Fabien Galthie, Raphael Ibanez and Shaun Edwards have combined to form a new coaching group choc-full of fresh ideas.
Galthie has come in with a swagger, arrogance and command. Ibanez with a winning-mentality and media-savvy approach. Edwards with his reputation enhanced off the back of 2019 and considered the best defence coach in the world.
During the most-recent Championship fallow week, France kept 28 players in camp – an unprecedented move. 2023 has narrowed the focus.
Their squad for the 2020 Six Nations contained 42 players, and not a single one was over the age of 30.
In fact, since France’s 2019 Rugby World Cup quarter-final loss to Wales, Guilhem Guirado, Louis Picamoles and Wesley Fofana have retired, while the likes of Maxime Medard, Yoann Huget, Rabah Slimani, Wenceslas Lauret, Camille Lopez and Maxime Machenaud have been ignored. Experienced heads Morgan Parra and Matheiu Bastareud have been overlooked too.
At times it’s been brutal. France Television followed Gathie pre-Six Nations on some of his interviews with players ahead of naming his first squad. Racing back-row Lauret, one of the form players in Europe, was seen asking: ‘What if the players don’t want to?’ in response to a command to follow all Galthie and Ibanez directives. The interview was cut and Lauret was left out.
A series of big calls have been made, but it is most certainly working.
For the first time in a decade, France have won their opening three Championship games and won away in Wales. In fact, it was the first time in nine years that France won away to any previous Six Nations champion (England, Ireland or Wales).
Ahead of France’s opening Test with England, Eddie Jones remarked: “Test match rugby requires experience and France have decided not to take experience in, they’ve gone with youth. And they might be wrong, they might be right.
“We don’t know but it’s going to test those young players because they will have never have played against a brutal physicality and intensity that we are going to play with on Sunday.”
The outcome? A youthful Les Bleus ripped England’s World Cup finalists apart for an hour and recorded a fabulous 24-17 victory in a cauldron of noise in Paris.
In Cardiff on Saturday, France took it up another level as they combined wonderfully loose attacking play with a wilfully stringent defence.
Whether it’s slaloming full-back Anthony Bouthier, whose jinking running with the ball in two hands has proven such a threat, the pure pace and world class stepping ability of Teddy Thomas, the combination of speed, power and offloading of Virimi Vakatawa, the intelligence and distribution of Gael Fickou, nobody has been able to contain France’s backs so far in 2020.
In the forwards, they’re led by captain Charles Ollivon – the imposing flanker fit with the height of a second row and pace of a naturally-built open-side. Young props Cyril Baille (26), Mohamed Haouas (25) and Demba Bamba (21) are each coming of age at the same time, among a strikingly powerful pack – one which should only develop in terms of presence going forward.
And perhaps most significantly, there finally appears to be a settled half-back combination in 20-year-old Romain Ntamack and 23-year-old Antoine Dupont.
When it comes to changing the key axis of a XV, the French historically wipe the floor of every other nation in Test rugby, to near-farcical proportions.
In total, France have fielded 34 different half-back combinations since 2012. The baton is now firmly in the possession of Ntamack and Dupont, though, and the pair have everything.
Both are wonderfully balanced runners, capable of breaking a defensive line themselves or creating an opening for others, and each have a superb ability to isolate defenders with kicks from hand.
They are as creative a pair as there is around, and have been sensational to date.
Much has been made of Edwards’ impact with France this side of the Channel – perhaps too much – but the bare facts are he came in as the most high-profile defence coach in the world and France’s effort, energy and hunger has exponentially increased.
On paper, the Edwards manual of coaching combined with French psyche shouldn’t work. But so far, it has.
France’s 23-year-old No 8 Gregory Alldritt and second row Bernard Le Roux have made almost a quarter of France’s entire completed tackles so far – players are emptying the tank for the cause.
And France are playing for the full 80 minutes too. So long famed as a 60 minute or even a 40 minute team, Les Bleus are playing to the death consistently for the first time in years.
There’s an intelligence to this squad as well. When Alldritt was sin-binned in the closing stages of the first half in Cardiff, they stuck to their processes and physicality, frantically keeping out Wales for six breathtaking minutes with the clock in the red. Then when the second period started, they dominated the ball until Alldritt returned and no points had been shifted.
It could almost have been described as ‘unfrench’. The appetite for dirty, defensive work this group are displaying is perhaps unrivalled in France’s rugby history. With nine minutes left in Cardiff, tighthead Bamba arrived after Haouas’ yellow card, and France forced a scrum penalty against the head, five-metres from their own line.
Such moments are Test defining. Ntamack, as silky and stylish a playmaker as you will see, sprinted back with minutes left to make a tackle and then jackal over a breakdown to win a critical penalty. Camille Chat’s final turnover to end the match was an extraordinary piece of strength too. They’ve shown the lot.
Their line-speed is a real point of difference compared to previous years. Ntamack’s intercept try at the Principality came as a direct result of it. This is something Galthie had started to influence during the World Cup too, as urgency increased and they were noticeably quicker off the line.
Such an amalgamation of free-flowing attack, and resolute, structured defence consequently engenders confidence into a side with immense talent. A very dangerous concoction indeed.
In Cardiff, within a must-win game and white-hot atmosphere, Alldritt trapped a poor Thomas pass with his foot and then picked the ball up one-handed. At another stage, Vakatawa threw a no-look pass over his head, while Ntamack was more brazen with his penalty kicks from hand as confidence grew.
There’s an irrefutable freedom to how they’re playing, and it’s highly enjoyable.
The French public, for the first time in a long time, are firmly on board too. Support has been phenomenal in Paris and they made themselves heard at the Principality too. La Marseillaise could be heard during the second half of Saturday’s clash, which in a rugby cathedral such as a Cardiff, was pretty incredible.
Now, they sit on the precipice of a Grand Slam. A trip to Scotland and Ireland at home await. A word of caution – as spellbinding as France were in wins over England and Wales, it was at home to Italy where they failed to impress to the same degree.
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