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How the French rediscovered their mojo

After a decade of farcical selections and disastrous results, new head coach Fabien Galthié has turned France’s fortunes around.

The perfect ten: Ntamack's move to out half has been a success.
The perfect ten: Ntamack's move to out half has been a success.
Image: James Crombie/INPHO

AFTER NINE HILARIOUS years, the soap opera also known as the French national rugby team is finally working off a new script.

All those dark endings, the humiliation by the All Blacks at the 2015 World Cup, the scramble to secure a draw with Japan, the defeats to Italy and Fiji, the 44-8 hammering by England, have disappeared. The change of producer has resulted in a change in performance.

And about time too when you consider the depth of talent in their ranks, highlighted by the fact the decade began with a grand slam in 2010 and an appearance in the 2011 World Cup final.

But since then? Marc Lievremont may be remembered as the coach who lost the dressing room but his replacement, Philippe Saint-André, was worse, losing over half of his 45 games in charge.

Enter Guy Novès. Seven wins from 21 games followed. Exit Guy Novès and welcome Jacques Brunel, yesterday’s man replaced by the day before yesterday’s. Under Brunel, France won 10 out of 23.

Across the decade, there was a wooden spoon in 2013 and just one top-half finish in the Six Nations from 2012 through to 2019 – their worst sequence of results in the competition since the 1920s.

Something had to change and Bernard LaPorte led the revolution, deleting the requirement for French players to return to their clubs during Six Nations down weeks, coming to the realisation that a modern-day game-plan was required.

All he needed was someone he could trust to implement it.

Right man, right place, right time

It was a case of getting the band back together. You had Laporte, grand slam winning coach in 2002 and 2004, his former captain, Fabien Galthié, and the man Galthié shared the captaincy with, Raphaël Ibañez.

fabien-galthie Fabien Galthié has turned things around for France. Source: Billy Stickland/INPHO

Now they were filling respective roles as head of the French federation, head coach and team manager. Opinion on Galthié is mostly favourable, Thomas Castaignède pointing to his former half-back partner’s strength of character, LaPorte to his CV. As head coach, Galthié guided Stade Francais to the Top 14 title and Montpellier to the final.

But he flopped at Toulon failing to bring the club to the Top14 semis.  Then there were these thoughts from Jim Hamilton, who played under Galthié at Montpellier.

“Galthié loves the country, the culture and the jersey,” Hamilton wrote in his column for The Times. “It’s in the blood with him and he’ll be using that to help his players connect with their inner French-ness. In the likes of Shaun Edwards, Raphaël Ibañez, Laurent Labit and William Servat, he is also surrounded by coaches with vast experience of successful set-ups. Combine those two elements — the passion and the professionalism — and you’ve a potent mix.”

But …

“Very early on, I formed an impression of a passionate rugby man with a streak of poison in him,” Hamilton wrote. “Positive or negative, his reaction was invariably disproportionate and you never really knew where you stood.”

Do we really know where French rugby stands now, five games into Galthié’s reign? They’ve beaten England, Wales (twice) and Italy. But they also lost to the Scots and this year’s title is probably beyond them. Deep down, though, Galthié doesn’t really care. Every decision he makes now is geared towards 2023.

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You win nothing without kids

This team is built around the France U20 sides that won back-to-back World Rugby U20 Championships in 2018 and 2019, its average age just a shade over 24.

Those decisions have already been vindicated, though – not least the choice of Charles Ollivon as captain, even though, prior to this year, he had only started only seven Tests in six years. So far in 2020, Ollivon has scored two tries against England, added one since, and has created three more. “His journey wasn’t easy, he was a brilliant player, but the physical problems he’s had, the experiences he’s had, these are the moments that make you doubt yourself. But he managed to come back strong,” said Galthié.

Others were trusted: Antoine Dupont, Romain N’Tamack, François Cros and Grégory Alldritt.  “Galthié has dared to take the players the others didn’t want,” said Richard Dourthe, the former France centre. A chief success has been N’Tamack’s relocation from centre to out-half.  He excelled in the wins over England and Wales, where he scored a crucial intercept try and kicked superbly. “When Romain plays, I ask myself, ‘How is he going to surprise me again?’” dad, Emile, said. “I’m stunned. When you’re playing in one of the toughest competitions in the world, with the best players, and you do things out of the ordinary then it’s impossible to take this for granted.”

Another positional shift that has worked out was the decision to move Virimi Vakatawa from the wing to centre where his partnership with Gaël Fickou has impressed. As it happens, Fickou has been shifted to the wing for tomorrow’s encounter because of Teddy Thomas’ injury.

In the back row, Cros, Alldritt and Ollivon have married passion with panache, their threat at the breakdown matched by the danger they pose in attack. Then there is Dupont, electrifying against Wales last weekend, a world class operator. Not for the first time, France have a team packed with talent. The difference this time is that consistency in selection is matched by consistency in performance.

antoine-dupont Dupont is Europe's form player. Source: Tommy Dickson/INPHO

Style and substance rhyme

When he first got the job just before Christmas, Galthié sent Santa a wish-list. No1, he wanted to sort out his pack – which was why he turned to Servat and Ghezal. Here were two young coaches tuned into the modern game, attributes rarely used in relation to Brunel and Noves.

Accordingly, there’s a noticeable difference to France’s play up front. The same can be said of their defence – Shaun Edwards’ fingerprints all over their performance in Cardiff pre-lockdown when France put in 218 tackles, their conditioning a key factor in that win. 

“The character of this team, its identity, still has to be built,” said Galthié. “But we are sure of one thing, we want it to be a team that never gives up. There are things you can’t do without, determination, motivation, ferocity.”

We saw those attributes in fits and spurts last spring – then for 80 minutes last weekend when Wales were taken apart. Four wins from five tell only half the story of this new-look French side. They’re not just cutting teams open but they’re winning aerial battles, too. They’re defending for one another, playing in unison.

When have we last said that about them?

Should Andy Farrell be worried then?

The short answer is yes but you get the impression Galthié and France’s focus is on the 2023 World Cup as much as it is on the here and now. “We wanted to cap the players and give them confidence,” the French coach said. “These players show a strong sense of belonging.”

Unlike his predecessors, Galthié has resisted the temptation to tinker and change as soon as something goes wrong, trusting his colts to mature. “Great things can happen but we are taking nothing for granted,” he said. “We need to improve every day and must not lose sight of our goal of winning matches and titles.”

One major flaw remains, though – namely their discipline. This time a year ago they had the World Cup quarter-final in the bag before Sebastien Vahaamahina lost his head; in Murrayfield their dream of a grand slam disappeared as soon as Mohamed Haouas picked up an unnecessary red card.

Even last weekend, despite running up 38 points on the Welsh, they also ran up 16 penalties. That provides hope to Ireland.

And let’s face it they need it because the only thing linking France in 2020 to Les Bleus in 2019 is the colour of their shirts.

About the author:

Garry Doyle

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