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FEATURE Old timers back in vogue as France favour Springboks' approach

Old timers back in vogue as France favour Springboks' approach
4 months ago

England were famously dubbed ‘Dad’s Army’ at the 2003 World Cup, a nickname bestowed on the wizened old men in white by the Australian media. “It was the one slur that really hit home,” reflected Matt Dawson. “There was a lot of disrespect.”

England used the mockery as motivation and the old timers triumphed. Who did they beat again in the final?

In fact the average age of Martin Johnson’s squad in the 2003 tournament was 28 years and 288 days, younger than the 29 years and 131 days of the All Blacks who won the 2015 tournament.

Martin Johnson
Johnson’s England side were considered to be past their prime, but still won the 2003 World Cup (Photo Peter Parks/AFP via Getty Images)

The Kiwis were spring chickens compared to the Springboks who lifted the Webb Ellis Cup in Paris last year; the average age of the South African squad was 30 years and four months, the oldest of all the 20 competing nations. The youngest squad, incidentally, was Australia’s, with an average age of 26 years and four months. Poor old Aussies and their obsession with youth.

Fabien Galthié referenced the South Africans recently when he was discussing the composition of France’s Six Nations squad. Nine of the 34 players are the wrong side of 30, a far cry from the players he selected for the 2020 tournament. Having just taken over as head coach of Les Bleus, Galthié picked a squad of 42 with only one player over 30 (Bernard Le Roux); the average age of the squad was 24 with eight caps to their name. Asked at the time if he wasn’t being a bit ageist, Galthié replied: “No, but after 30, international level is not easy.”

Four years later he was asked to explain why he’s taken a fancy to 30-somethings. “Against South Africa in the quarter-finals, we were 27 years old and had an average of 33 caps,” said Galthié. ‘South Africa had an average age of 31 [sic] and 66 caps, and they went on to win a second World Cup title. In four years’ time, our team will have an average age of 31, if it doesn’t change too much. It will be even stronger and more experienced.”

Of course, there’s a different way of managing a 20-year-old and a 30-something but the only thing that matters is their performance in training and above all on the weekend

France’s one-point defeat by South Africa in the last eight of their own World Cup was a bitter disappointment for the country. They blamed the referee at first, then began muttering about Galthié’s preparations but it’s only now, with the passage of time and the easing of the pain, that most fans acknowledge they were simply beaten by a better and, crucially, more experienced team.

For the 2024 Six Nations, Galthié has talked prop Uini Atonio and second-row Romain Taofifenua (both 33) out of retirement, and he’s recalled 30-year-old Stade Francais lock Paul Gabrillagues, last capped four years ago. When Emmanuel Meafou was forced to withdraw last week with a knee injury, the old Galthié would probably have called up the exciting young prospect Posolo Tuilagi, who created such a sensation in last year’s Under-20s World Cup; but the new Galthié opted for Paul Willemse, 12 years older than Tuilagi.

The pack which faces Ireland on Friday is likely to have an average age of 30, while in the midfield Jonathan Danty and Gaël Fickou have accumulated 60 years between them.

Uini Atonio
Giant prop Uini Atonio, 33, has been persuaded to continue playing for France rather than retire (Photo Paul Harding/Getty Images)

Midi Olympique recently asked Laurent Sempéré, a new addition to Galthié’s coaching staff, how all the 30-somethings will make it to the 2027 World Cup. “Asking this question is already an error,” he replied. “We’ve got 34 players at our disposition, 34 competitors who perform each week in the Top 14. That’s why they’re here and for no other reason. Of course, there’s a different way of managing a 20-year-old and a 30-something but the only thing that matters is their performance in training and above all on the weekend.”

Sempéré cited South Africa’s victory in October, but pointed out that the Springboks had also won the Cup four years earlier with a younger team. “Frankly, should we be dwelling on age?” he mused. ”I’m not convinced.”

Sempéré is partially right. It’s not just a question of age. What is more significant, from a French point of view, is the number of matches played each season. And here France are at a distinct disadvantage to their big rivals.

It was surely no coincidence France lost several key players late last season with injuries – Romain Ntamack, Willemse and Julien Marchand – while Jonathan Danty was never 100% fit during the World Cup. The body can take only so much punishment.

The Top 14 is the toughest domestic league in world rugby. This season, the first round of matches took place on 18 August and the last round will be played on 8 June. Then there are the play-offs, culminating in the final on 28 June.

Ten-and-a-half months of bone-jarring rugby. Throw in a World Cup, the Champions Cup and the Six Nations, and a handful of French players will be practically comatose come the end of June. No wonder Antoine Dupont has taken a Sevens sabbatical.

It was surely no coincidence that France lost several key players late last season with injuries – Romain Ntamack, Willemse and Julien Marchand – while Jonathan Danty was never 100% fit during the World Cup. The body can take only so much punishment.

In the first three months of 2023, Springbok lock Eben Etzebeth played just four matches for the Sharks in the Champions Cup and the URC before injuring his shoulder against Munster in April. There was no need to rush him back; he had ample time to rest and recuperate before making his comeback for South Africa on 15 July.

Eben Etzebeth
Eben Etzebeth had three months out with injury but returned in time to help South Africa win the World Cup (Photo Paul Harding/Getty Images)

In the same period, France’s World Cup second-row Thibaud Flament played in every minute of their Six Nations campaign, and then lined up for Toulouse in the knockout stages of the Champions Cup and Top 14.

South Africa prop Frans Malherbe played nine games for the Stormers from the start of January to the end of May last year; in the same period, French tighthead Uini Atonio appeared 12 times for La Rochelle and played three matches in the Six Nations.

That is why Sempéré is only partially right. As South Africa showed, World Cups can be won with a ‘Dad’s Army’ squad of players averaging 30-plus; but only if they are well managed. Etzebeth spent three seasons at Toulon, a move that was undoubtedly good for his bank balance if not his body. He never played so much rugby during those three years, but he left at the end of the 2022-23 season to join the Sharks, where his appearances were few and far between as he got himself ready for the World Cup.

The Top 14 is a fiercely competitive league with the threat of relegation never far from the mind of several club owners; consequently, they expect their well-paid stars to be available.

Fabien Galthié doesn’t have the luxury of his South African counterpart, or indeed of any Tier One head coaches. England’s Premiership has been trimmed to 10 clubs, with no relegation or promotion, and the URC also lacks intensity for the same reason. The old sporting cliché about there being no easy games doesn’t hold true in the URC, at least not this season; the Sharks have won just one of their nine matches, the Dragons two, in the process piling up a points difference of minus 164.

In the Top 14, leaders Racing 92 have won eight of their 13 matches while bottom-placed Montpellier have won four of theirs. Only 10 points separate Racing from Clermont, who lie ninth. It is a fiercely competitive league with the threat of relegation never far from the mind of several club owners; consequently, they expect their well-paid stars to be available.

This is perhaps the biggest obstacle to France winning the World Cup in 2027. So Galthié will need to recruit the club owners to his Dad’s Army in the next year or so to ensure that his players report for duty Down Under fighting fit.

Comments

2 Comments
S
Shaylen 144 days ago

He needs to blood new talent and build caps before 2027. To be honest though France are very well placed in the next cycle. Many of their players are old but many of their younger players have serious experience behind them. This is because of the work Galthie did in reinventing the squad 4 years ago and blooding numerous youngsters who he got ready for the past cycle. Come the next world cup France will be able to field a run on team with probably an average of 60 caps per player and it wont be an old team either. Their older players will become squad players or players who play max 60mins a game while some will retire or be dropped and relinquish their places to younger players. In the end don’t expect a French dads army. They will have a squad and a run on team at peak age. There will be no excuses for France in 4 years time

G
GrandDisse 145 days ago

Surely the amount of matches/minutes played is problematic for french players. As it’s very unlikely that the number of matchs will be reduced, they will have to provide some rest to international players.
I don’t think Galthié and his staff changed their way of thinking following the world cup though. In 2020 they picked a very young team (average caps <10) corresponding to their new game project. Now they already have this base of players so they don’t have to restart from a blank page. Regarding Willemse, Gabrillagues, Atonio and Tao, I don’t think they were picked with the 2027 world cup in mind, but rather to bring a team able to beat Ireland.

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