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Bravo les Bleus! But it's too early to know if France are genuinely back

Similarly, we can’t write off England’s Six Nations hopes just yet.
Feb 5th 2020, 4:41 PM 5,064 5

ANTOINE DUPONT WILL be 26 when the next World Cup takes place. Romain Ntamack will be just 24. 

France’s starting halfback pair are a microcosm of les Bleus‘ wider Six Nations squad, which new head coach Fabien Galthié took a broom to before the championship got underway, sweeping out what he saw as the deadwood and instead backing youth.

romain-ntamack-celebrates France's 20-year-old out-half Romain Ntamack. Source: James Crombie/INPHO

The long-term idea is that this youthful French group will be in prime condition by the time their home 2023 World Cup rolls around, but they appear to be in pretty good nick already judging by last weekend’s home win over England.

26-year-old Charles Ollivon was making his first-ever Six Nations start but scored two tries as he captained Galthié’s side to a 24-17 victory over Eddie Jones’ England.

It’s worth immediately stressing just how poor England were in the opening half, leaving them 17-0 down at the break. This was an abysmal performance from Jones’ side, who the head coach ultimately heaped pressure on by confidently stating they would bring “absolutely brutality” and show an inexperienced French team what Test rugby was all about.

Instead, England went out and showed everyone exactly how to lose a Test match. Their error count in the first half was horrific.

A kick out on the full by George Ford, a Tom Curry knock-on in the 22, Kyle Sinckler dropping the ball, debutant fullback George Furbank blowing a two-on-one in France’s 22 – all of that was inside the opening 10 minutes and it got worse from there.

The sight of Owen Farrell dropping two passes cold – though England had advantage playing on the second – was as jarring as anything. 

Many of the England errors came from French pressure, of course, but this was England at their very worst. Every other Six Nations team, barring Italy perhaps, would have racked up a strong half-time lead against England in this kind of form.

That said, les Bleus deserve the plaudits coming their way and they will fancy continuing this early momentum with a big win over Italy in Paris this weekend. With visits to Wales and Scotland beyond that, as well as a final-day home tie against Ireland, it’s an exciting time for the French.

charles-ollivon-celebrates-with-his-father-olivier Captain Charles Ollivon celebrates with his father, Olivier. Source: James Crombie/INPHO

Their performance last weekend was founded on the superb defensive effort that saw them complete 93% of their tackles – many of them thunderously effective efforts from the likes of Bernard le Roux [22 tackles], Grégory Alldritt [16], and Gaël Fickou [18], who is the new defensive captain for les Bleus.

Backing 25-year-old Fickou in this role was a smart call from new defence coach Shaun Edwards – himself an intelligent recruit for France – as it gives the centre real responsibility in the team. Always an incredible athlete, Fickou is looking increasingly mature in recent times.

The defensive physical effort was huge, while they competed brilliantly at the breakdown. Replacement loosehead Jefferson Poirot won two turnovers but it was the indomitable 22-year-old Alldritt who led the assault on England’s possession, attacking a remarkable 23 opposition rucks. In the injury-enforced absence of the imposingly-necked Camille Chat, Toulouse’s 24-year-old hooker Julien Marchand was prominent at breakdown time too.

With impressive debutant fullback Anthony Bouthier, a relative veteran at the age of 27, often left to patrol large swathes of space in the backfield, France’s defensive line was aggressive in its linespeed and dominated the England carriers, with the Vunipola brothers badly missed.

France’s three tries had some brilliance in them. Dupont, a little bundle of brilliance, sparked the first with his clever arcing run off a wide ruck, exploiting Maro Itoje’s eagerness to rush forward by releasing Teddy Thomas into space with a short pass off his left shoulder after drawing in Sam Underhill.

Soon after, Ntamack slipped an inside pass to Vincent Rattez – only into the team at a late stage due to Damian Penaud’s injury – as France exploited Sinckler’s aggression this time. Ben Youngs slipped off his tackle on Rattez far too easily and France were 7-0 to the good with less than seven minutes played. Attack coach Laurent Labit had reason to be pleased with those plans paying off.

France’s second try through Ollivon involved a fair degree of luck with the ball bouncing ideally for Rattez, as well as a deeply damaging switch-off from Jonny May, who completely stopped playing.

The third score from les Bleus was perhaps most enjoyable of all as Dupont danced through some shocking English defence just after a scrappy lineout win, cut past Youngs and then passed inside for the hard-working Ollivon to finish.

france-v-england-guinness-six-nations-stade-de-france England must now bounce back against Scotland in Murrayfield. Source: David Davies

In the second half, England’s scrum dominance and May’s attacking quality allowed them to reel the French back in and they earned themselves a losing bonus point that might come in handy if they can steady themselves and win away to Scotland this weekend.

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The reaction to France’s victory has been understandably effusive but this writer is resisting jumping onto the bandwagon just yet.

France winning their first title since 2010, or at least genuinely contending, would be brilliant for the championship. This opening victory over England certainly allows them to compete and Galthié and his players will hope to only get better.

A home clash with Italy this weekend won’t really tell us more about the French, particularly given how poor the Italians were away to Wales last weekend.

We really have to wait until rounds three [away to Scotland] and four [away to Wales] for the next genuine tests of their quality. Galthié will back his men to pick up more momentum against Italy and then go on the road to secure a win.

But the disastrous nature of England’s first-half performance must be taken into account. 

Here’s hoping that this victory indicates that France are genuinely back on a consistent basis, ferociously competing for the Six Nations trophy this year and on into the future.

For now, we wait to see what they offer up in the coming weeks.

On the flip side, it will be intriguing to note if England rebound strongly, having steadied themselves in the second half last weekend. World Cup finalists only months ago, the English are now being ruled out of the running in some quarters.

Having lost one game away from home, England are not out of the Six Nations trophy race just yet and Eddie Jones’ men will hope to take a positive step this weekend against a fire-up Scotland team who will have had an extra day to prepare. 

Lose and England are certainly out of the championship race. The Six Nations has only just got underway, but already things are heating up.

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Murray Kinsella

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