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Defence, discipline, and accuracy: France's Six Nations campaign so far in numbers

By Claire Thomas
EDINBURGH, SCOTLAND - MARCH 30: France players warm up prior to the Guinness Women's Six Nations 2024 match between Scotland and France at Hive Stadium - Edinburgh Rugby Stadium on March 30, 2024 in Edinburgh, United Kingdom. (Photo by Peter Summers/Getty Images)

French rugby is all about flair. It’s about style – whether languid or flamboyant – and about a highly romanticised unpredictability. Whether the offload sticks or self-destructs depends entirely on which France has shown up, but what’s guaranteed is that the nation who invented the ‘champagne’ genre of the game will jouez jouez.

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The play will sparkle as the panache oozes from every pore, and their match directors – fresh from a broadcast catering feast of duck à l’orange and a lovely red – make coverage decisions best described as ‘whimsical’. In the background, ‘La Marseillaise’ rings out.

The thing is – that’s just not true. Yes, the French have a tendency to produce moments of jaw-dropping ooh-là-là – but they’re just as capable of instances of ouille!-eliciting thunder or accuracy which is simplement formidable.

They’re a chef-d’œuvre boasting a variety of brushstrokes – not just the virtuosic – so, as much as we love those occasions, it’s time to burrow into the hard data available to us, and see exactly what Les Bleues have been about so far in the 2024 Six Nations – ahead of their third round clash with Italy.

Fixture
Womens Six Nations
France Women's
38 - 15
Full-time
Italy Women's
All Stats and Data

The basics. Two played, and two won. A bonus point victory over the Irish in their opener – 38 – 17 – before a scrape past Scotland, 15 to 5, in Edinburgh. Italy, Wales, and England to come.

53 points scored – seven tries, six conversions, and a pair of penalty kicks – which is a tally only the Red Roses have surpassed. On the flip side, they’ve conceded three tries, two conversions, and a three-pointer – a total of 22 bettered only by, you guessed it, John Mitchell’s table-toppers.

France have finished second for the last four editions of the championship, and it’s a position they know well when it comes to the in-tournament statistics – where they’re generally nipping at English heels. The important numbers are those which deviate from that: the metrics in which they’re some way off the Packer-set pace, or where they might have the edge on their cross-Channel rivals.

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In attack, they’re growing into games slowly – tending to finish with a flourish – whilst the Red Roses take a quarter to find their feet, but are then consistently inexorable.

Five of Les Bleues’ seven tries have originated from a lineout, but that doesn’t necessarily make them predictable: they’re as comfortable biding their time as they are launching strikes moves, with scores taking everything from one to double-digit phases.

It’s vital that they finish these, given how much opportunity they earn themselves: no one has as much ball as the French. Top for possession and enjoying the most territory by some margin, they want to play avec le ballon wherever possible – and they’re pretty good at doing that: enjoying the lion’s share against both Ireland and the Scots, despite topping the naughty step for ‘bad passes’, and affecting the second-fewest turnovers.

What will be a concern is conversion. They had 57% possession and two-thirds territory against Scott Bemand’s side in round one, but averaged 2.2 points per penetration of the Irish 22. Their opponents? Starved of ball and field position, but slamming 7 on the board each time they made it into France’s red zone – and not once leaving that hallowed turf empty-handed.

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A week on, Scotland were much less ruthless – managing just 2.5 points per entry – but their heroic defence hammered France’s own efficiency, and they slunk off with a measly 15 points from 15 visits. For clarity: a point per foray is terrible.

Defensively, there’s plenty for Gaëlle Mignot and David Ortiz’s charges to hang their berets upon. Conceding three tries over two matches is no small feat, and they’ve missed the fewest tackles in the championship.

They also stepped up between rounds, which is key – it’s crucial that they build as the tournament progresses – missing fewer tackles, conceding fewer offloads, and halting carriers on the gain line more frequently.

Discipline is intrinsically linked to defence, too – given how it prevents and alleviates pressure – and Les Bleues have been squeaky clean so far. Only Ireland have conceded fewer penalties, and there’s not been a single card brandished at a Frenchwoman in 2024.

Set piece-wise? Mixed. Everyone’s struggling at the line out – the average success is 75% – so France’s 79% is towards the top of the pile, but they’ll be concerned by the way it collapsed against Scotland, when they lost five of 17 throws. At the scrum, they’re absolute teacher’s pets – with a 100% record on their own feed. They’re not exactly bullying opponents here – they’ve won just the one penalty (England have conjured up five) – but it’s a rock-solid platform for them.

What about that key battleground – the breakdown? ‘Secure but slow’ is the headline: seven rucks lost so far – as few as anyone – but a ruck speed which places them down in fourth – and light years behind England’s blistering 2.82s average. What Les Bleues have mastered is the defensive side of proceedings on the floor: no one makes life stodgier for their opponents, and they’re devious at forming and defusing mauls.

They’re 80% off the tee, which isn’t quite as pinpoint as Ireland or Wales, but is almost twice as accurate as the reigning champions. Come Bordeaux, this could be massive: England haven’t taken a single shot at goal, and have missed nine of their 16 conversion attempts – whilst France have mishit just two kicks all tournament, and knowing they can rely on this option transforms the complexion of any territorial battle.

That might be a point for the blue team, but what’s a coup for the women in white is how much more dominant they are ball-in-hand. The French lead the carry count by 272 to 242, but trail considerably when it comes to the return on those – and have grappled 200 fewer metres post-contact. 40% of England carries are dominant: less than 20% of French ones are.

The prospect of Romane Menager running at Marlie Packer is as thrilling as it is terrifying – and surely a production Marvel are working on as I write – but the evidence suggests the world number ones will rule the roost, come the meaty stuff.

Worth noting, and invaluable in the context of a relentless campaign, is that France’s performances are squad-wide efforts. The load’s shared around this youthful squad, with a variety of players bringing a variety of USPs to the table. 

Madoussou Fall is their most industrious tackler, but Manaé Feleu is the one who does the best sledgehammer impression (and wins all the lineouts). Marine Manager has an eye for a line-break, whilst her twin Romane has contributed a mammoth 33 carries, with Assia Khalfaoui and Gabrielle Vernier not far behind. Emilie Boulard and Lina Queyroi have made up the metres ball-in-hand and with the boot, and – of the 14 most prolific offloaders so far – nine are French.

Ridiculously, that last statistic brings us back to where we started – this idea of France as the egg-chasing universe’s Harlem Globetrotters. They’re not – partly because there’s much more to their game than that, but mostly – having looked at these numbers – because they need to earn the right to play with such verve and elan: through dominant carries, quicker subsequent ball, a reliable line-out, and developing the attacking efficiency to build score lines which allow them to cut loose. You can’t ice a cake which has collapsed mid-bake, and good luck draping tinsel over a brittle Christmas tree.

There’s an enthralling arms race taking place – as Mitchell’s England sprinkle stardust onto their trademark grunt, and France hustle to reinforce the foundations of their offloading temple – and the finish line’s looming into view. Bordeaux beckons, where all these numbers will culminate in the only two which matter – those on the scoresheet as that final whistle sounds – and they fire up the confetti cannons…

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Jon 2 hours ago
Why Sam Cane's path to retirement is perfect for him and the All Blacks

> It would be best described as an elegant solution to what was potentially going to be a significant problem for new All Blacks coach Scott Robertson. It is a problem the mad population of New Zealand will have to cope with more and more as All Blacks are able to continue their careers in NZ post RWCs. It will not be a problem for coaches, who are always going to start a campaign with the captain for the next WC in mind. > Cane, despite his warrior spirit, his undoubted commitment to every team he played for and unforgettable heroics against Ireland in last year’s World Cup quarter-final, was never unanimously admired or respected within New Zealand while he was in the role. Neither was McCaw, he was considered far too passive a captain and then out of form until his last world cup where everyone opinions changed, just like they would have if Cane had won the WC. > It was never easy to see where Cane, or even if, he would fit into Robertson’s squad given the new coach will want to be building a new-look team with 2027 in mind. > Cane will win his selections on merit and come the end of the year, he’ll sign off, he hopes, with 100 caps and maybe even, at last, universal public appreciation for what was a special career. No, he won’t. Those returning from Japan have already earned the right to retain their jersey, it’s in their contract. Cane would have been playing against England if he was ready, and found it very hard to keep his place. Perform, and they keep it however. Very easy to see where Cane could have fit, very hard to see how he could have accomplished it choosing this year as his sabbatical instead of 2025, and that’s how it played out (though I assume we now know what when NZR said they were allowing him to move his sabbatical forward and return to NZ next year, they had actually agreed to simply select him for the All Blacks from overseas, without any chance he was going to play in NZ again). With a mammoth season of 15 All Black games they might as well get some value out of his years contract, though even with him being of equal character to Richie, I don’t think they should guarantee him his 100 caps. That’s not what the All Blacks should be about. He absolutely has to play winning football.

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