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RUGBYPASS+ November will show if injury-hit France have strength in depth to lift the World Cup

November will show if injury-hit France have strength in depth to lift the World Cup
1 month ago

For those of a statistical bent, these paragraphs will be bliss. Fabien Galthié’s France have won their last ten internationals, making them the most successful Bleus of the professional era. Not since the days of Serge Blanco and Pierre Berbizer, from November 1986 to June 1987 to be precise, have France gone ten matches undefeated but on that occasion one of them – a 1987 pool match against Scotland – was drawn.

The only other time France racked up ten on the bounce was between 1931 and 1937, after they had been kicked out of the Five Nations for paying their players boot money. They had to look elsewhere for a game, namely Mussolini’s Italy and Nazi Germany, so ten wins against fascist XVs doesn’t really count. 

Nonetheless, if France beat Australia on Saturday they will become the first generation of Bleus to win 11 games in a row. See off South Africa and Japan on the following weekends and France will edge closer to surpassing the Test record for consecutive wins of 18, held jointly by New Zealand and England. 

The match against the Springboks in Marseille on November 12 should be a belter. The nations rarely meet: once in the last five years (2018) and only six Tests in the last 12. The Boks have won them all.  

But the France of today is unrecognisable from that of a few years ago when players were mentally fragile, physically unfit and technically limited. Fabien Galthié and his coaching staff have overseen a revolution, one that has claimed the scalp in the last 15 months of every major Test-playing nation bar the world champions. 

As I said, that evening in Marseille will be mouthwatering. 

France v South Africa
France last played the Springboks in Paris back in 2018, so their meeting is a rare treat for fans (Photo by Jean Catuffe/Getty Images)

But if France are to continue their winning run they will have to do so without several of the players who helped them this year achieve their first Grand Slam since 2010. Full-back Melvyn Jaminet is out with an ankle injury, so too winger Gabin Villière, while flanker François Cros’s problem is his knee. 

It is in the front-row, however, where the injury crisis is most acute. Toulouse loosehead prop Cyril Baille came off the bench for Toulouse on Saturday, his first action in five months after recovering from an adductor operation. He’s been drafted into the French squad but is clearly some way off match fitness. His Test understudy, Jean-Baptiste Gros, is out injured, as is another of Galthié’s prized ‘finishers’, tighthead prop Demba Bamba, laid low by a serious knee injury.  

If there’s one country you don’t want to play when you’re suffering a front-row shortage it’s the South Africans. To make matters worse for Galthié, one of the props he selected in his initial squad of 42 was La Rochelle loosehead Reda Wardi. How did he celebrate his call-up? By shouldering Antoine Dupont in the face in their Top 14 clash and receiving a red card, as well ejection from the France squad.  

It’s not all bad news. Fly-half Romain Ntmack, whose partnership with Dupont has been so influential in France’s winning run, is back after six weeks out with an ankle injury.

There have been other disruptions to Galthie’s 42-man squad: the withdrawal through injury of Florian Verhaeghe and Romain Buros. In short, it’s not been the preparation that Galthié would have wanted but perhaps in the long run it will be a valuable exercising in trying out young talent ahead of next year’s World Cup.

It’s not all bad news. Fly-half Romain Ntmack, whose partnership with Dupont has been so influential in France’s winning run, is back after six weeks out with an ankle injury.  

Thomas Ramos has deputised at 10 for Ntamack for Toulouse in his absence, and with great effect. The 27-year-old is playing the best rugby of his life; he’s fitter and faster than he ever has been, and Ramos has added consistency to his goal-kicking.  

He is also versatile, and Ramos is expected to replace Jaminet at 15 ahead of Montpellier’s Anthony Bouthier. Another French back likely to benefit from his multitasking is Bordeaux’s Yoram Moefana; the 22-year-old was sensational in the centre during France’s summer series win in Japan but he is tipped to line up on the right wing in place of Villière against Australia with Jonathan Danty and Gaël Fickou in the midfield. On the left wing will be Damian Penaud, who has started all but one of France’s last ten Tests.  

The back-row will also have a familiar feel to it with Six Nations regulars Anthony Jelonch and Grégory Alldritt, in the 6 and 8 shirts respectively. The third member of the triumphant triumvirate, François Cros, is out and his place will be taken by Charles Ollivon, fit again after a knee injury sidelined him for the best part of a year. 

Paul Willemse Cameron Woki
The form of Cameron Woki and Paul Willemse has been questioned after both have been out injured (Photo by David Rogers/Getty Images)

It’s in the front five where France are weakest. Cameron Woki and Paul Willemse are a strong second row but their form this season has been distinctly average. In an inconsistent Montpellier side, Willemse is struggling to rediscover his touch after undergoing knee surgery in May. Woki, who moved to Racing 92 from Bordeaux in the summer, has made only three starts in the second row this season for his new club, who prefer to play him in the back-row. Second row is the one area where France are short of talent. Thibaud Flament showed up well last season in his breakthrough campaign but the suspicion remains that he is more suited to the flank than at lock. 

Julien Marchand will start as hooker, with the explosive Peato Mauvaka to replace him during the second half. Uini Atonio will pack down on the tighthead and Toulon’s Dany Priso will probably be on the loosehead. His last Test start was in June 2018 when New Zealand hammered France 49-14. Priso was 24 at the time, and had been playing rugby for only seven years, four of them in the front row. Now aged 28 he is a far better player, in the loose and in the set-piece.  

Last Monday was a red letter day for Dupont; named captain of his country, he also won Midi Olympique’s World Player of the Year award and, for the fourth consecutive season, scooped their domestic player of the year gong.

The team will be captained by Dupont, who took over from Ollivon twelve months ago and has known over success since. Ollivon skippered France in Japan, a tour Dupont and several other senior players were permitted to skip, but Galthié last week announced the scrum-half as his captain for the three autumn internationals. 

The announcement was made on the day Midi Olympique held its annual awards ceremony in Paris, bringing together the great and the good of French rugby. The newspaper canvassed the opinion of several French rugby legends and they all – Thierry Dusautoir, Philippe Saint-Andre and Daniel Dubroca – believe the right choice has been made. So did Serge Blanco, who described Dupont as ‘the natural captain of this team because on the pitch he leads by example and his teammates follow in his footsteps’. 

Last Monday was a red letter day for Dupont; named captain of his country, he also won Midi Olympique’s World Player of the Year award and, for the fourth consecutive season, scooped their domestic player of the year gong. He took it all in his stride, as one would expect from a player who appears not to suffer from nerves.  

Antoine Dupont Romain Ntamack
The rock star pairing of Antoine Dupont and Romain Ntamack is back in business to cheer France (Photo By Brendan Moran/Sportsfile via Getty Images)

Expressing his pleasure in being named captain, Dupont told Midi: “I feel good in this team, in this squad, and I feel well supported by the other leaders who have been mentioned by the coaching staff.” 

The other leaders cited by Dupont are Marchand, Ollivon, Fickou, Alldritt and Jelonch, a cadre that has been carefully cultivated by Galthié. Cliques have developed within previous generations of French XV in recent decades, particularly during the claustrophobic nature of World Cup tournaments, and Galthié is determined to avoid a repetition in 2023. Asked how Ollivon had taken losing the captaincy, Dupont said he hadn’t yet spoken to him but he intimated it wouldn’t be an issue. “Things are healthy between us,” he explained. “Whether it’s Charles or the rest of the leaders, we communicate easily. There’s no animosity.” 

Victory against the Wallabies on Saturday will be the first step. Defeat Australia, and then South Africa and Japan, and France will be ever closer to reaching their ultimate goal on October 28 next year.

A year from now Dupont could be the most famous face in France, the first Bleu to lift the Webb Ellis Cup. He told Midi Olympique that he feels “pressure” but also “motivation” when the thinks of the tournament. “But between now and then, there are many steps to take to continue to build confidence, experience and serenity.” 

Victory against the Wallabies on Saturday will be the first step. Defeat Australia, and then South Africa and Japan, and France will be ever closer to reaching their ultimate goal on October 28 next year.

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