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.
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 second part of a two-part series are three experts on Les Bleus: Aurelien Bouisset, rugby reporter at L’Equipe, Illtud Dafydd, a reporter for Agence France-Presse and Paul Eddison, a long-time Francophile and chief sportswriter for Beat Media Group.
Is Fabian Galthie the right man to take France to their own World Cup?
Illtud Dafydd: Brunel was nicknamed ‘Papi’ by the media, French for Grandpa. Fabien Galthie is very different. He has cool glasses, wears white trainers with suits and already has a media profile. His relationship with Ibanez is important because although he’s a fine technical coach, Ibanez, who is a likeable character, smooths relationships. Galthie has been accused of arrogance, but I feel you need that at the top level – you can’t be nice all the time.
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‘Spectacular’ TV numbers recorded in France on the back of Galthie’s revival of Les Bleus
I’ll give you an example. Galthie went around all the clubs before the Six Nations interviewing players. Wenceslas Lauret at Racing has been a starter for the past few years and was in the World Cup squad. France TV, who broadcast the Six Nations, showed a clip of the two of them on a table with a notepad, Galthie said: ‘When this new squad comes in, you do what you are told and follow what Rafa Ibanez and I say.’ Lauret’s response was, ‘What if the players don’t want to do that?’ The clip ended. A few weeks later, Wenceslas Lauret was not in the Six Nations squad. That tells a story.
Paul Eddison: Galthie is widely regarded as the best technical coach in France. He had success quite quickly at Stade Francais and Montpellier so he has a good track record. He is very precise with what he does and wants to play at a higher tempo, with more intensity. If standards aren’t met, he can be critical. He’s often out on the pitch and doesn’t like stop-start training sessions. The players have to follow strict guidelines. They’ll do little drills and then move straight into larger practice games. He admits that there have been questions about his relationships with players but he increasingly understands the communication side of things. He knows what he wants the team to project and is quite particular about that.
Aurelien Bouisset: As a person, he’s not always that easy to deal with. We worked with him at L’Equipe for many years where he was a columnist. Sometimes you got the feeling he was keeping things from you. You got the feeling he thought, ‘you’re not smart enough to understand the rugby and my technical game-plans’. In the last five years, he’s become more media savvy. Rafa Ibanez has helped him a lot in this regard. They are trying to act like Stuart Lancaster did when he came in in 2012 after the previous regime were fairly closed. They are running open training sessions.
In the old days, they used to just run the first ten minutes as an open session and then close it down but now they’re far more transparent. What has never been in doubt is his skills as a technical coach. In 2015, he started travelling. He spent time in Wales and England asking lots of questions. All his learnings have been implemented into Les Bleus. The French set-up, in truth, was behind all the other Test sides in the way it was managed. It wasn’t properly staffed, the S&C was outdated. France were even behind some of the best Top 14 clubs, like Clermont who had more modern methods. Galthie had the strength of character to say, this is what we have to do. The team got to a point where they realised they couldn’t carry on like they always had. Everyone is now on the same page.
With Les Bleus in Cardiff on the weekend, I spoke to three wise men @Aurelebouisset @pauleddison & @IlltudDafydd about French malaise, a clean start, relations with the Top 14 and why revenge is in the air. Damn, it's so good it's getting a sequel! ????????? #Part1 https://t.co/q6Trq2JXGq
— Owain Jones (@OwainJTJones) February 18, 2020
Galthie’s Six Nations squad had an average age of 24 and just 10 caps. Was it correct to dispatch Huget, Picamoles, Guirado and Fofana? Compare that to Wales’ handling of Alun Wyn Jones and Ken Owens…
ID: The likes of Picamoles and Guirado were part of a few very dark years in French rugby. The public know that and the players know that. They were some of the best players ever to play for France. Picamoles was joint-most capped No8 of all time, Guilhem Guirado was sixth in the all-time list of players to captain France and Yoann Huget could win or lose a Test match on his own. That’s not forgetting Morgan Parra, Mathieu Bastareaud and even Rabah Slimani. All were fine players. For instance, if you talked about them in Champions Cup matches, you’d always say, ‘wow, look out for them, they’re dangerous players’, but I think they were part of a very difficult French period for rugby. I sense a lot of them accept it’s no longer their time. For the greater good, they have stood aside.
PD: A lot of them had pretty much decided before the World Cup that they were going to hang up their boots. Fofana, Picamoles and Guirado said as much. Fofana is a shame but his body cannot hold up. Vahaamahina is the one that the coaching staff are still holding out for because he’s just 28 and they miss him. He would be welcomed back. He had a few wolf whistles down at Toulon, but you’d expect that from a partisan crowd. The fans understand it was a decision made in the heat of the moment. France are struggling for monster locks. They have athletic types, like Arthur Iturria and Felix Lambey but in Vahaamahina’s place is Paul Willemse. The management are seeing if he has the intensity and fitness for Test level. Time will tell.
AB: None of them are really missed. Galthie has a clear strategy of not picking any player over 30. He didn’t say it explicitly but it was clear he was going for youth. What’s really strange is when you look at the international records of the big names in France, most of them have less than a fifty per cent win record. You don’t expect that. I wouldn’t say they’re the ‘losing generation’ but you are surprised. Everybody used to feel for Guirado because he put his body on the line time and time again and he was not to blame for the losses but he had to speak looking distraught on TV. It is a clean slate for France.
After years of relative mediocrity, there's – all of sudden it seems – been a boom in French 10s ??
— RugbyPass (@RugbyPass) February 14, 2020
How much of an impact in France did the England win have? Did it put Les Bleus on the front pages?
ID: The French rugby media had a chip back on their shoulders. On the front page of L’Equipe was ‘Sorry, good game’ in the English language, but everyone understood the sentiment. The atmosphere was electric. There were moments I couldn’t hear myself think or communicate with my colleagues. Other little factors show enthusiasm is flooding back. Their TV ad revenue shot up this season from €40,000 for 30 seconds, rather than €10,000 to €15,000. The World Cup in 2023 and the Olympics in 2024 is already very much on French minds.
Paul Eddison: England will always be the big game and they were good for so long until they ran out of stream down the final stretch. The Italy game wasn’t as good but there wasn’t too much criticism from the press. They realised some big strike runners like Vakatawa and Penaud were missing. As they have said all along, they are so inexperienced, so young. They will be fearless in Cardiff but experience could tell in the last 10 minutes.
Without Damien Penaud, Virimi Vakatawa and Camille Chat, France veered back to playing some unstructured, mistake-ridden rugby against Italy – did that show us France are far from the finished article?
ID: The French public weren’t expecting to beat Italy by a cricket scoreline. They were coming from modest beginnings. They love the fact they beat England, but Italy is often a free-scoring affair. There was a pragmatic reaction. Paul Willemse spoke to me after the game about Shaun Edwards’ defence, he said if we put that together for 80 minutes, we are going to be drained. It made me think they’re not quite ready to put in a complete performance.
PE: Part of the way they play is not something they can control over 80 minutes. They will have periods where they will be on the back foot and they are going to have to get better at managing those periods. I thought there was too much criticism for what it was. They scored five tries and weren’t in danger of losing the game.
AB: The Italy game helped Galthie spread the message that there is still a lot of work to be done both internally and externally to the fans and media. We know France have good players. At the World Cup, Galthie told us that a few players had the quality to be world-class. He name-checked Antoine Dupont, Damien Penaud, Jefferson Poirot and Arthur Iturria. Teddy Thomas is special as well but he has consistency issues. They have talent, but they are not the finished article.
— RugbyPass (@RugbyPass) February 8, 2020
A lot of talk will be about Shaun Edwards this week, how has his impact been viewed in France?
ID: Everyone knows about Edwards in France. They know he made the Welsh defence the best in the world so they’re very happy to have secured him, no matter how much it cost. He came over with a big reputation and you can already see the improvements. Bernard Le Roux has made 38 tackles, that’s more than 10 per cent of all their tackles so far and together with Gregory Aldritt, that’s 64, which is more than 20 per cent of their total tackles. You can see players are buying in.
PE: The win over England saw plenty of coverage of his involvement. They know they have got the most decorated defence coach around and they think he’s had an impact. If you listen to the English commentators, it’s as if he’s the only one coaching but it’s not quite like that. They know there are certain players that thrive in his system. Aldritt, in particular, is proving an inspired selection.
How do they view the Wales game? A real test of their progress…
ID: Every interview I have seen or been privy too, a French player has been asked, what about revenge? Players certainly haven’t forgotten about last year because they want to use it as motivation. They know how close they were. There are plenty of players who know what it’s like to lose to Wales and they want to put that right. There’s a clear respect for Wales but also an element of incredulity at how they’ve been good for so long during the period. How can they become world beaters in Welsh jersey yet be so mediocre in a regional jersey? There’s envy that they have won so much. On being asked about the atmosphere, François Cros said it’s like Stade de France or Thomond Park, but the Principality can intimidate players.
PE: There is a little trepidation. They know it is going to be a tough game. It will tell them if they’re challengers or have some way to go. They have quite a poor record on the road. They struggled in Edinburgh and Twickenham last year, so it’s a very big game for them. Galthie is ambitious enough to want to win the title and deal with the expectation to build on it. It will help with the World Cup rankings which is a good thing. It’s a message to say ‘we’re back’.
AB: Revenge is probably on the mind of some players. The coaching staff will realise that they’ve lost more games to Wales than they’ve won and that it would mean something to win at the Principality. The past shows we’ve failed to win there for a decade. I hope they don’t underestimate it. It’s the first away game for Fabien Galthie. He will be able to see how his young squad copes in a big stadium against a team with huge amounts of experience. Alun Wyn Jones is very obvious. The French are impressed with his aura on the pitch. Aaron Wainwright impressed against France, Josh Adams, if he’s fit, had a very good World Cup. The scene is set for a brilliant game.
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