Even to themselves, France are an enigma after a near-decade of malaise on the Test stage. They have the talent and they have the numbers but putting it all together to mount a serious challenge for the Six Nations has been beyond them. 

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However, with a home World Cup looming, a new coaching set-up and political stability, there is at last optimism for a squad turning heads so far in the 2020 Guinness championship. Next up is Wales – their chief tormentors in 2019 – and it will be the stiffest test yet of Fabien Galthie’s young charges. 

Here to help RugbyPass dissect the state of play in French rugby in the first part of a two-part series are three experts on Les Bleus: Aurelien Bouisset, rugby reporter at L’Equipe, Illtud Dafydd, reporter for Agence France-Presse and Paul Eddison, a long-time Francophile and chief sportswriter for Beat Media Group.

France have the second biggest playing base in the world next to England. Is the fact they have finished in the top half of the Six Nations only twice since their 2010 Grand Slam a source of embarrassment?

Illtud Dafydd: It’s more disappointment. You have to remember they have challenged on the world stage reaching three World Cup finals, but it has just gone downhill since 2011. There have been poor coaching appointments, poor selection and a lack of consistency over key positions like half-back. For 2020, I like the youthful look to Fabien Galthie’s squad. Take Romain Ntamack, he’s young but already a two-time U20s World Cup winner, an U20s Six Nations winner and has played in a successful Toulouse side. Some credit must go to Bernard Laporte. He isn’t just an administrator, he has a coach’s eye, so he has fast-tracked youngsters.

Paul Eddison: They have now got to the stage where they have accepted it’s not acceptable to struggle for that long. If you look back at France since they were admitted to the Five Nations in the 1950s and won their first title, they hadn’t gone more than four years without winning another trophy, so this 10-year gap is the longest drought yet and has made it easier to get the clubs on board. They realise they can’t afford for France to be in a mess heading towards 2023.

(Continue reading below…)

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‘Spectacular’ TV numbers recorded in France on the back of Fabien Galthie’s revival of Les Bleus

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Aurelien Bouisset: The feeling in France is that this barren patch crept up on people. France won the 2010 Grand Slam and made the 2011 World Cup final so Les Bleus hid behind that for some time. The focus was on World Cup cycles, so it was swept under the carpet. They were dining out on older and older memories. It was only quite recently, when Guy Noves was sacked, that they realised nothing was changing. People realised it wasn’t just Jacques Brunel, the malaise had been embedded for some time. Another factor was Toulouse and latterly Toulon’s success in Europe was hiding a lack of success on the Test stage. The old thinking was that even when France weren’t that good, they could make the World Cup final but lots of sides have improved since then.

How much blame can be laid at the door of the Top 14 for France’s travails – have they now realised a poor national team can be bad for business?

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ID: It’s something they knew anyway but didn’t want to accept. Compare it to Wales. With ‘Team Wales’ everyone watches them, all the build-up is about them. Champions Cup and PRO14 games are put on the back burner. In France, however, there were 26,000 watching Racing 92 against Toulouse on Sunday night and Bordeaux-Begles had a sell-out of 33,000 on the weekend against Lyon for the first time since 2015. There is such an affinity and emotional bond with the hometown clubs. I’ll give you an example, when I asked Maxime Medard if he thought his performances merited a call-up for France, I got a few quizzical looks as if to ask, ‘Why are you asking him about that, we’re on club time?’ That said, relationships have improved massively, both administratively and in sporting terms.

PE: The Top 14 is an easy target. It’s too easy to say ‘there are too many foreign players’ because with 14 clubs young players get as many if not more opportunities than elsewhere. The style of play sometimes doesn’t help. Some clubs that will just play huge packs to overwhelm sides. To play at international level, you need to play at a higher tempo. Politically, France is as stable as it has been for a while. The national team going well helps. At the end of the year, there will be the FFR elections and Laporte will be challenged by Florian Grill who has the support of Guy Noves, Serge Blanco and Fabien Pelous – some big hitters. Laporte is desperate to stay on for the 2023 World Cup, given how involved he was in getting the tournament. The vote is very political but Laporte knows how to lobby. He’s given Galthie the coaching set-up he wants. Raphael Ibanez is on board to help with player and club liaison and they have more time with players than they have ever had. They kept 28 players during the rest weekend which is unprecedented.

AB: The relationship between the FFR and the LNR was awful from day one since the league was founded over 20 years ago. When Bernard Laporte took over with vice-president Serge Simon, they really wanted to destroy the league because they wanted the clubs to be under FFR control and use all the money for France. They wanted Top 14 president Paul Goze to step away. It was the time when the relationship was at its worst, so bad that you wondered if they could reach some sort of agreement. Maybe Laporte was weakened because of his links to the Altrad affair but both warring parties agreed on a truce. They realised France’s poor results were bad for everyone. Even under Jacques Brunel, they started to give a little more freedom for players to rest or be available for training camps. Now with Galthie, the squad is bigger than ever. They have 42 players in camp. Progress is there for all to see.

Jacques Brunel’s two-year tenure was largely low-key and uninspiring, were there any positives to his legacy?

ID: Results-wise it was very bad. People felt sorry for him more than anything. He was parachuted in by Laporte after he had a fallout with Guy Noves, but Brunel was never going to refuse to be the French head coach. He was a safe pair of hands, nothing more.

PE: Historically he will be seen as a stop-gap. Laporte and Noves hadn’t seen eye-to-eye from the off. It wasn’t his man and it was clear he was going to get rid of him whereas Brunel was one of Laporte’s assistant coaches and was seen as quite revolutionary at the time with some of the attacking ideas he brought in. Anything going forward will have Galthie’s mitts on them. Brunel brought in some young players, like Dupont, but you feel he’d have come through anyway with his talent.

AB: I don’t think so. His legacy will be his work as assistant coach to Bernard Laporte or head coach to Perpignan when they won the league. He won’t be remembered for the couple of years he had in charge of Les Bleus. Everyone thinks that the reason we were decent at the World Cup was because Galthie arrived a little bit earlier with Laurent Labit and a new fitness team. No one will say it’s thanks to Jacques Brunel that we nearly beat Wales at the World Cup. Indeed, Brunel was contracted to June 2021 because at first the FFR thought he could keep coaching Les Bleus until after the World Cup. They wondered whether to wait for Joe Schmidt to be available but they realised it wasn’t possible. They had to act. They worried they might not make it out of the pool in Japan. It was the wisest decision they’ve made.

France were so, so close to reaching a World Cup semi-final against South Africa after outplaying Wales – did that act as a kick-starter for a renewed push on the international stage?

ID: There was signs of Galthie’s influence in that performance against Wales. The defence was a bit more organised. They were quicker off the line and Virimi Vakatawa was basically unplayable. It whet the appetite enough for the Stade de France to be sold out weeks in advance for the England game.

PE: There is a feeling that France owe Wales one. You had the Six Nations game when they went 16-0 up against Wales and gifted them two tries and the World Cup quarter-final – they should have won both games. I don’t think there will be the fear that there was there a while back but there is a little pressure on them. Remember, Noves started off with two wins in 2016 and then lost 27-6 to Wales in Cardiff. This is a Wales side in transition. They are starting their journey to the World Cup, too. There is hope, more than expectation.

AB: The rugby public were happy with how France performed on the world stage. Players like Penaud, Dupont, Ntamack and Vakatawa are young and should be available for 2023. If you listened to the logic from the fans, they were saying, we nearly beat Wales, who nearly beat South Africa, so we weren’t too far away from winning something. Galthie is more of a realist. He knew France had narrowly lost 10-12 games in the past few years and there were deep-seated problems. France got into bad habits.

(Part two will be published on Wednesday…)

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