England were crowned 2020 Six Nations champions but it is the rise of France that has Kiwi Super Rugby stars’ attention, after their first campaign under Fabian Galthie saw Les Bleus finish second with impressive wins over England, Wales and Ireland.
After losing to Wales in last year’s quarterfinal, France became a formidable outfit in 2020 after recruiting former Welsh defence guru Shaun Edwards as an assistant coach and allowing a swathe of young talent to take over the starting roles.
Their impressive dispatching of Ireland in Paris had Aotearoa Rugby Pod panellists James Parsons and Bryn Hall impressed, with the young halves pairing of Antoine Dupont and Romain Ntamack earning praise.
‘They’re sharp, they’re fast, they are all out attack,” Parsons explained.
“Dupont the 9, he’s got great support lines. One thing I noticed with him, he makes great decisions around when to just go, pass, and then when to have a snipe, but he’s always there, always there or thereabouts.”
“The other guy [Gael] Fickou was the one that took my eye, he’s 26 so he’s a little bit older than Dupont who is 23 and Ntamack who is 21. We spoke about those players like Rieko who can turn a game on its head, Fickou is that player.
“He chases kicks hard, he does the hard work but he’s also got the finesse, the confidence and the skillset. But also that flare, something you can’t put words to, you just watch and be like holy heck he’s got a helluva game going.”
The traditional French style of unpredictable counter-attacks has seen somewhat of a revival under Galthie, with France seemingly able to score tries from anywhere with their fantastic backs. Crusaders halfback Hall highlighted that more depth is potentially coming through the pipeline for France.
“They are going to be scary come 2023,” said Hall, “you think about their under-20s programme they’ve had as well, they’ve been successful, so if you are thinking around those players coming through, these are the guys.
“We talk about us building something special, I think the French are going to be very dangerous. You think about the last 4-5 years, we probably haven’t had that conversation around the French.”
Parsons contrasted the performance of 20-year-old Wallabies debutant Noah Lolesio to that of Romain Ntamack, just one year older, to illustrate just how good the Toulouse flyhalf has been.
“Ntamack is 21, against Sexton on the weekend he put on a clinic. But he didn’t just put on a clinic, we talk about kick options, his balance of attack was on point.
“He was smart enough to drop back into the pocket and play territory when he saw wingers up after they had done a chip kick that led to a try. He found kick space through attacking kicks, he found space for others with his passing game.
“For 21 years of age, we talked about Lolesio and the growth that he’s going to have, well this guy has been in and around the system for a bit and just shows how his game is going from strength to strength. Because it was a good Ireland team.”
Parsons was impressed with France’s pack up front but said the only worry at this stage is the leakage out wide.
“The only thing that would be a concern for them, is just the other side of the ball, defence, making sure they stop points. They’ve got some big boys, doing a lot of work up front. Le Roux, who was one of the most dominant tacklers, it just needs to be backed up with some one-on-ones out wide.
Although France had a tremendous campaign, ultimately it was England that claimed the title on points differential as both teams finished with 18 competition points.
“For me, England’s defence is what’s winning them titles. It’s not pretty, but their physicality in defence tires teams out. They are just relentless when they don’t have ball in hand. They’ll get better with ball in hand as they make changes,” Parsons argued.
“I don’t think the French are there yet, purely because England won, but it’s their defensive relentlessness. The top five defenders here are: Itoje first, second was Le Roux from France, third equal Underhill and Tom Curry and fifth James Ryan. In the top five defenders are three English players.
“You win titles based on defence. That’s how they won the semi-final against the All Blacks, was through that brutal defence. These boys throw themselves into breakdowns like you wouldn’t believe, and it just doesn’t allow you to attack, it stagnates your attack. It’s all slow ball.
“That’s why England have been so successful at the moment.”
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