The opening match of the Rugby World Cup is no gentle ‘loosener’ for sterner tasks ahead. There will be no gradual build-up to full speed. It will be pedal-to-the-metal right from the ‘off’: hosts France versus New Zealand at a full Stade de France containing 81,000 baying supporters. The sound of La Marseillaise will rumble around the arrondissement of Saint-Denis, like a low thunder beyond the stadium.
It can be intimidating stuff, even for experienced international players. Clues about what to expect are invaluable, and they can come from a variety of sources. There will of course be an exhaustive analysis of previous recent matches between the two nations, via both team and individual profiles, tactical and psychological assessments. Remembering those at key moments will help keep All Black feet on the ground.
But perhaps the most dynamic development in recent times is to be found in the game played at age-group levels. The Under 20s World Championship has moved from the periphery to the centre of rugby thinking, and it has become another precious tool for evaluation.
Why? Consider this: 42 of 48 players who represented the full England team in 2022 had played under 20s rugby previously. The vast majority are already attached to professional clubs via academies, and sometimes they have already had a substantial taste of senior rugby.
Building the younger generation along the right physiological and mental-emotional guidelines, before they ever play club rugby, is far more energy-efficient than trying to reclaim older professional minds and bodies: ‘It’s easier to build strong kids than it is to repair broken men,’ as one recent England Under 20s strength and conditioning coach memorably put it.
The available GPS data has shown that essential categories like distances run, accelerations, decelerations, high metabolic load and sprints made in top under 20s rugby provide an excellent stepping-stone to full professional level. Increasingly, what you may see in a Six Nations decider, a Rugby Championship shoot-out or even a World Cup final may be predicted on the under 20s scene, five or six years before it ever happens.
As World Rugby’s own website observes, “In the 15 years of its existence, the World Rugby U20 Championship has played an integral part in the player development pathway, as well as being a brilliant tournament in its own right.
“Countless stars of the future have been unearthed and many of those will be on display when Rugby World Cup 2023 kicks off next year.
France have won the last two World Championships, in 2018 and 2019.
“France are two-time defending champions and plenty of the triumphant 2018 and 2019 squads have gone on to establish themselves as lynchpins of all the all-conquering Les Bleus team in a very short space of time.”
England’s planning targeted the 2019 World Cup in Japan as a potential peak in national performance, on the back of a ‘golden generation’ of under 20s players who won the tournament in 2013, 2014 and 2016.
France have won the last two World Championships, in 2018 and 2019. Big names such as Damian Penaud, Thomas Ramos, Ethan Dumortier, Matthis Lebel in the back three; Arthur Vincent in the centres; Antoine Dupont, Matthieu Jalibert, Romain Ntamack in the halves; Julien Marchand, Peato Mauvaka, Jean-Baptiste Gros and Demba Bamba in the front row; Anthony Jelonch, Dylan Crétin and Cameron Woki behind them, all trekked the under 20s pathway in the five seasons up until 2019 to provide the backbone of the current French senior squad now.
Meanwhile, there has not been so much a trickle-down, as a flood of tactical attitudes and positional requirements gushing from senior to junior level. The France Under 20s team which turned over their Kiwi counterparts by 35 points to 14 at the Paarl Gimnasium in South Africa on 29 June used the same tactical approach that the full national side will adopt on opening night on September 8.
They will look for similar bodies in the same spots. The right side of the senior Tricolores scrum features 145 kilos of tight-head prop Uini Atonio with 130 kilos of Paul Willemse directly behind him. It might have been even bigger had Emmanuel Meafou been eligible for selection – between them, Atonio and Meafou tip the scales at the better part of 300 kilos. Likewise, the right side of the Les Bleuets scrum in Paarl was locked down by tight-head Zaccharie Affane at 127 kilos, with the colossal 149 kilos of Posolo Tuilagi shoving behind him.
France likes a 4/4 split between tight and loose forwards, right down the middle of the pack. At senior level, they typically pair one very large, physical second row (Willemse, or Romain Taofifenua) with a much quicker athlete who more often plays in the back-row for his club (Cameron Woki or Thibault Flament). For the Under 20s, 149 kilos of Tuilagi was yoked to the gangly frame of Hugo Auradou. The French lineout caller stands 6 feet 7 but ‘only’ tips the scales at 102 kilos.
And therein lies the danger for New Zealand at the World Cup. Both the eventual result (35 points to 14 to the French), and the manner of dispatch bore a distinct resemblance to the last occasion New Zealand played France at senior level, when the All Blacks lost by 40 points to 25 back in November 2021. That match was also played at the Stade de France, so there are some demons to be exorcised.
At Paarl, the Baby Blacks could not contain the power of Tuilagi and the French lineout drive, and they could not stop No 9 Baptiste Jauneau from running the show from the base of scrum, ruck and maul:
Auradou catches, Tuilagi gets on the ball immediately in the second layer of the maul, and there is nothing New Zealand can do to stop the juggernaut lock ploughing over.
France scored three tries off the lineout drive in the game, and used the threat of forward progress as a springboard for short-side moves:
Affane and Tuilagi are at the sharp end of an advancing maul, with Tuilagi tossing All Blacks forwards around like tissue paper. Then Jauneau (in the red hat) takes over, triggering a move back to the short-side which he finishes himself.
Stopping Tuilagi’s sheer power, both in the tight and on the carry was a huge problem for New Zealand right until the end of the game, while Jauneau was the major back-line influence on proceedings, in both attack and defence:
That is Tuilagi, shrugging off every attempt at bringing down the buffalo even after it looks like he must have been lassoed. Baptiste Jauneau meanwhile, is plucking a page out of the Shaun Edwards playbook. Every position on the field, not just the nominal No 7, is expected to be an effective jackler of the ball on the ground: it is a latter-day case of Les Trois Mousquetaires, ‘all for one and one for all’. In France’s Grand Slam-winning 2021 Six Nations, seven of the top 20 pilferers were French, and three of those were backs.
France’s most effective on-ball defender is left wing Gabin Villière, who had four steals in the 2021 Six Nations and interprets the spot like an extra loose forward:
After an aggressive tackle by France No 9 Antoine Dupont, Villière (in the red hat) has no thought of meekly retiring back to his nominated spot on the left flank. He chases the play down, all the way into midfield before becoming a part of a joint turnover with Woki.
The idea of utility backs who can glue the X-factor players in the French back-line together is a potent one on attack too:
This time the diminutive French left wing is tracking infield to build on a huge carry by Paul Willemse and make further progress straight up the middle. France score on the very next play through flyhalf Romain Ntamack.
Villière was also at the tip of the France lineout drive which began the scoring at the beginning of the game:
Between them Willemse and Villiere take out the defence around the infield corner of the drive, and that creates enough for a hole for Peato Mauvaka to burrow over for the try.
The senior All Blacks experienced the same problems in defending the lineout drive as their counterparts in the under 20s:
The athletic lock makes the catch, the power lock gets on point and leads the ball carrier into the space he wants to target. Simple.
A few minutes after the half-time break in both games, France was 24 points to 6 up in Paris against the full All Blacks in 2021, and 28-0 ahead of the junior Kiwis at the recent under 20s match in Paarl. In both games, New Zealand mounted a comeback, but ultimately neither proved to be enough to change the outcome.
There may not seem to be any obvious connection between the two results, but students of the game in New Zealand will be disappointed that their representatives were seen off in much the same way in the second round as they were in the first. There was no evidence of tactical progress with the opening game of the 2023 World Cup in prospect.
Under 20s rugby has become a hotbed for an initial seeding of the same strategies and selection policies used at a much higher professional level. When they become physically mature, the players who will represent France will still be employing the same systems they first learned as teenagers.
They will still find the same 4/4 split in the forwards and that super-sized right side of the scrum; the dominant, active scrum-half and the suffocating emphasis on turnover at the breakdown, by backs and forwards alike.
If New Zealand has found an answer to the threat posed by Les Bleus, we will now have to wait until September 8th to discover what it is. The clock is ticking.