Finally, the real French team arrives
OPINION: The rugby world has been waiting for this France side to put it together for a while now.
They have had the talent and power to win the Six Nations title over the last two years, but have stumbled just when everything was on offer.
Since the opening clash of the 2020 Six Nations, when France put away England in their first game since the 2019 World Cup final defeat, the stamp of legitimacy was placed on Fabien Galthié’s emerging team due to the impressive manner in which they defeated Eddie Jones’ experienced side.
England had the bulk of the side that made the World Cup final just six months earlier, while France had gambled on a generational change to start a new era.
They had moved on from elder statesmen Morgan Parra and Camille Lopez, who were holding back players like Antoine Dupont and Romain Ntamack from the starting side.
They finally had explosive playmakers and a rejuvenated forward lineup with Gregory Alldritt and Charles Ollivon taking over from leaders like Louis Picamoles.
After Ntamack’s intercept try sealed a crucial away win over Wales in round three, France was in the box seat to claim their first title since 2010 with three wins from their opening three games.
A red card to prop Mohamed Haouas just before halftime at Murrayfield two weeks later, though, drastically altered that plan, with Scotland denting France’s chances by stealing a 28-17 win after France led at the time of Houas’ dismissal.
That loss saw England claim the 2020 crown on points differential, despite both sides sporting a 4-1 record and 18 competition points.
The two teams met again in the Nations Cup final later that year, with England claiming a 22-19 win against an understrength French outfit.
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With two second-place finishes, France won no silverware in 2020, but they had re-established themselves as a powerhouse rugby nation in the first year of Galthie’s reign as head coach.
The 2021 Six Nations campaign would be decided on razor-thin margins, with tight victories over Ireland and Wales being undone by a 23-20 loss to England and a heartbreaking, tournament-ending defeat to Scotland in injury time.
Maro Itoje scored with five minutes remaining to take the lead in the English loss, while Duhan van der Merwe scored in the 85th minute after 19 phases to hand the Scots a 27-23 win.
However, last November’s 40-25 dismantling of the All Blacks was a warning shot that perhaps France was ready to take the next step forward and become Europe’s top nation.
This year, they stand on the verge of a Grand Slam title after four wins from their opening four games, grinding out a hard-fought 13-9 win over Wales in Cardiff to stay undefeated.
This is the kind of unassuming victory France have been missing when they have had momentum. Everyone knows they can blow the doors off the best sides when Dupont and Ntamack fire, but keeping a winning streak going has been a challenge.
Great teams just win, even when they face a plucky underdog who disrupts, stalls and makes things hard. That was Wales on Friday night, but France held on to grind it out.
This campaign has highlighted the depth at France’s disposal as a number of highly-touted players have sat on the sidelines through injury or lack of form, with the Les Bleus management preferring to keep players on their toes.
Ollivon, for example, has been missing from international action since last March with various time off due to injury.
Undoubtedly one of France’s best players, he is a talented offloader and a strong ball-carrier while also a defensive rock with turnover-generating skills.
France is a significantly more dangerous side with Ollivon fit and healthy, but have played without their talismanic loose forward.
Without him, Anthony Jelonch, a debutant from 2017, has been re-called and filled his shoes with the hard-working enterprise.
Throughout most of 2020 and 2021, Virimi Vakatawa was one of the world’s best strike weapons at outside centre. He has not played for France since last March either, having been released from this year’s Six Nations squad.
Utility back Gael Fickou has stepped into outside centre to provide cover and has rarely put a step wrong. Unheralded midfielder Jonathan Danty has quickly assumed the role of the power midfielder at No 12 in Vakatawa’s absence.
Danty had been in the international wilderness since his debut test season in 2016, earning just two caps in 2020 before getting his chance on the Australian tour of last year with what was heralded as a second-tier French team.
The rise back into the France fold for the La Rochelle midfielder is an example of this management team’s bold policy of betting on form or dropping due to a lack of it.
They have not been afraid to cull high-profile stars in favour of those in good touch, or re-call those who many thought might not make it again in international rugby.
Toulouse fullback Thomas Ramos had the benefit of partnering up with Dupont and Ntamack to form the spine of his club side, but has been usurped by Melvyn Jaminet, another standout on the tour Down Under from the French ‘B’ squad.
The finishing prowess of star wing Teddy Thomas is well known, but he found himself displaced by lesser-known Toulon wing Gabin Villière, who has been a revelation.
France has also introduced 21-year-old Yoram Moefana from Bordeaux into the fold as another wing/utility back option who bagged a try against Scotland in his fifth test.
Jaminet, Villière and Moefana are all relatively small players but are reliable, shifty, fast and tidy in the back three.
This French side isn’t obsessed with brute power out wide at the expense of core skills and smarts. They want to play with the old French flair, but, at the same time, eliminate the old laissez-faire attitude that would often lead to comical capitulations.
Powerful prop Uini Antonio was a regular in 2016 and 2017, but his international career went off the boil in 2018 as he made just six test appearances over three years.
He has since become an integral component of France’s imposing defence. Similarly, youngster Cameron Woki has elevated himself into the second row.
France has kept tinkering and evolving in its quest to bring home silverware, proving they have enormous depth in the process.
This year’s France side might not be as talented or have as much x-factor as the previous versions in 2021 and 2020, but they have shown more character and grit.
That has come from players hungry to get back into international rugby, and lesser-knowns who had a harder path to the top.
Eddie Jones called last week’s clash against Ireland a “World Cup semifinal” because he knew this week would be like the final, at Stade de France, no less, where next year’s actual World Cup final will be played.
Ireland and France are currently the two best teams in Europe, and England’s schedule perfectly placed them in back-to-back fixtures at the end of their Six Nations campaign, like that of a World Cup simulation run.
However, this France side should put England to the sword. This one game has been three years in the making, since that opening clash of the 2020 Six Nations.
It would be very France-like to blow this chance, but it feels like this French side is different, ready to overcome the mishaps of the last two years.
Jones is starting to talk about this game as being “World Cup preparations” for England, showing that they really have nothing to play for.
For France, a slice of history awaits in front of their home crowd with a Grand Slam on the line.
This has nothing to do with next year. This is about the here and now. France has earned this opportunity in 2022, and now it’s time to take it.
Eddie just needs to ensure the doors of his wagon aren’t blown off by Dupont and co.
By Ben Smith, RugbyPass