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FEATURE How France learnt to embrace winning ugly

How France learnt to embrace winning ugly
8 months ago

England are making few friends in France this month. That’s the rugby team, not their supporters, whose abundance, thirst and bonhomie have made them a favourite with bar owners along the Mediterranean coast.

But who wouldn’t need a stiff drink or two to take the edge of the tedium of watching England in this World Cup? It’s fair to say they haven’t set the tournament on fire as yet, though they have sent many neutral fans to sleep.

French pundits are particularly critical. Commentating for French broadcaster TF1 on Sunday evening, former Bleus’ winger Thomas Lombard described England as ‘sterile’; his former teammate, Olivier Magne, was more cutting, raging on social media that Steve Borthwick’s rugby is ‘ugly – no desire, no joy, no consistency. It’s a repulsive.’

As for Midi Olympique, in its Monday edition they summed up England’s style as ‘boring’, and the former France threequarter Pierre Villepreux declared that England’s kicking game is ‘incompatible with the spirit of the game’

The English squad are aware of their detractors – which include plenty of people back home – but in defending how they’ve played against Argentina and Japan, fly-half George Ford said: “We’re here to win games, aren’t we? That’s our job. We want to win Test matches.”

Olivier Magne
Olivier Magne has been particularly critical of England’s playing style but still wears the scars from Les Bleus’ exit from the 2003 World Cup (Photo ODD ANDERSEN/Getty Images)

Some of the French jibes are just rugby banter, although in Magne’s case the vitriol of his attack suggests he still hasn’t come to terms with the 2003 World Cup semi-final. On a rainy Sydney night, the boot of Jonny Wilkinson kicked France out of the World Cup, the English fly-half scoring all of his side’s points in the 24-7 defeat of Magne’s France.

It’s called ‘winning ugly’, Olivier, as you well know because France have become rather adept at the skill in recent seasons.

In last year’s autumn internationals France beat Australia 30-29 and South Africa 30-26 in consecutive weekends. Yet how many French fans remember that their boys scored only two tries in each match? Hardly the fabled ‘French flair’. Similarly, in their opening two World Cup matches, against New Zealand and Uruguay, France have scored five tries, one more than England. Other than their second half performance against the All Blacks, the Bleus have been uninspired and imprecise so far in the tournament. But they’re top of Pool A. As Fabien Galthié put it, when asked last week if he wasn’t a little disappointed with the manner of the victory over Uruguay: “The important thing is to win. We’re not here to put on a show.”

Laporte was criticised for winning ugly. So against Wales, he sent France out to entertain, and they lost at home 24-18. How did the country respond? Laporte was flooded with messages of gratitude from supporters delighted with the panache displayed

Magne and Lombard hail from an era when what mattered in French rugby was the style not the result. Bernard Laporte tried to change that mindset when he became coach after the 1999 RWC, but he met resistance from players, pundits and supporters.

In the 2005 Six Nations, for example, France beat Scotland and England in their opening two matches with a dour game-plan, scoring just one try in 160 minutes of rugby; Laporte was criticised for winning ugly. So against Wales, he sent France out to entertain, and they lost at home 24-18.

How did the country respond? Laporte was flooded with messages of gratitude from supporters delighted with the panache displayed in the defeat. ‘It’s mad,’ remarked Laporte. ‘I feel like we won rather than lost.’

France v England
In 2015, France lost 55-35 to England in the Six Nations and fans were happy because they played with careless abandon (Photo ADRIAN DENNIS/Getty Images)

There were exceptions to this quixotic approach, Galthié being the most notable. Unlike so many of his generation, Galthié played with his head more than his heart, a cerebral scrum-half who had his dreams crushed by Australia in the 1999 final and then by England in the semi-final four years later.

France’s obsession with ‘flair’ endured well into this century; when they lost to England 55-35 on the last day of the 2015 Six Nations, the overriding response in France wasn’t embarrassment at leaking a record number of points to the old enemy, it was a quiet pride in scoring a record number of points. ‘Merci les Bleus, Bravo les Anglais!’ was one headline.

In other words, France had become that most pitiful of sporting entities: the plucky loser.

France won their first title in 12 years in 2022, a triumph constructed on an iron defence, marshalled by Shaun Edwards, and a strategy of what Galthie called ‘depossession’: kicking the ball to the opposition and letting them make the mistake.

It has taken the required efforts of Laporte and Galthié to rid France of this crippling philosophy, aided by the emergence of a generation of players more hard-nosed than their carefree predecessors. After France finished second to Wales in the 2021 Six Nations, Antoine Dupont gave short shrift to a journalist’s suggestion that the team should be pleased with their season. “We’re going in the right direction,” he conceded. “But at the same time it gives me no satisfaction to say: ‘Nice one, we were runners-up in the Six Nations’. In ten years no one will be talking about that. What matters are titles.”

France won their first title in 12 years in 2022, a Six Nations Grand Slam, a triumph constructed on an iron defence, marshalled by Shaun Edwards, and a strategy of what Galthie called ‘depossession’: kicking the ball to the opposition and letting them make the mistake.

It was first deployed to great effect in France’s Autumn Nations Cup victory over Italy in November 2020. “We kicked 47 times, with a good success ratio of 86%,” Galthié. “That’s enough to get a team going in the right direction.”

Antoine Dupont
France have decided to kick more in a concerted strategy and Antoine Dupont is more than happy to put boot to ball (Photo by Levan Verdzeuli/Getty Images)

Galthie’s attack coach, Laurent Labit, justified the ‘depossession’ strategy in an interview in February 2021. “Defences are getting tighter and tighter, and there are a lot of players in the first line,” he explained. “That leaves us space on the flanks and at the back. You have to know how to use them to put pressure on your opponents…that’s why the kicking game so important in rugby today.”

France were more expansive in the 2023 Six Nations than they were in winning the title the previous year, scoring 21 tries compared to 17 in 2022.

The centime seems to have dropped with the French. It’s better to win ugly than lose pretty.

That’s the pragmatism of Galthie and his staff; he has forged a squad capable of adapting to the opposition and the elements, as well, he hopes, the pressure of the Rugby World Cup.

The French by and large seem to have bought into this approach. In a Midi Olympique podcast after last week’s 27-13 defeat of Uruguay, the paper’s journalists compared this French rugby team to the football squad that won the 2018 World Cup. Not the most “flamboyant” of sides but one that has the discipline and the pragmatism to win matches.

Finally, then, the centime seems to have dropped with the French. It’s better to win ugly than lose pretty.

Comments

5 Comments
J
Jérémie 268 days ago

Waouh, even in the French media "journalists" are not so obsequious with Laporte ! When you know the damages he caused to French rugby...

D
Doug 268 days ago

French ugly is way more attractive than what England does. They would not be kicking ball in the opposition half with a 2 man over-lap. That is why England is paned, they don't look at what's in front of them

B
Bob Marler 268 days ago

Amazing how winning ugly is now a thing.

Where is Clive Woodward? Someone needs to be outraged by this.

A
Anthony 269 days ago

Does Ford understand the meaning of disingenuous.
Saying one thing but doing another
He speaks as if we are going to atack atack , then kicks the life out of the game.
I dont believe for a moment only he decided to kick kick kick . It was management kn owing they had a robot who would follow orders on the field .
To win ugly is fine when required but to go out with a plan to just kick the life out of the game is appaling.
Borthwick should be held accountable for bringing the game into disrepute.
I am ashamed that the world is seeing the only quality English rugby has .
To kick kick kick .

Win ugly ??? I would rather lose by trying to win beautifully.
Shame on them all involved .

P
Poe 269 days ago

Oh mate. Is winning ugly the most saleable story in err England? today 'kin epic.

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