Are fantastic France justified Rugby World Cup 2023 favourites or are they peaking too soon?
France’s emphatic Six Nations Grand Slam success has elevated Les Bleus to Rugby World Cup 2023 favourites. But is it too early to tell?
Timing is everything in elite sport and, depending on your viewpoint, France’s impressive rugby team is timing its run to Rugby World Cup (RWC) 2023 success on home soil immaculately, or they are peaking too soon.
Les Bleus, under coach Fabien Galthié, completed the Six Nations Grand Slam with a comfortable, if error-strewn, 25-13 win over England in Paris last week. They have risen to second in the world rankings behind the Springboks and also recently beat rugby’s perennial yardstick, the All Blacks.
The win over England bookended an excellent Six Nations campaign where at times the rugby the growing French team played was breathtaking in its skill, audacity and execution.
The backline, marshalled by the brilliant scrumhalf and 2021 World Player of the Year, Antoine Dupont, was slick, decisive and fast on the attack. When they identified attacking opportunities, the ball was moved with speed and precision and as a result they were able to carve holes when the moment arrived.
The forwards are powerful and in locks Paul Willemse and Cameron Woki they have a second row to compare to Eben Etzebeth and Lood de Jager, or Sam Whitelock and Brodie Retallick.
France has always produced excellent forwards — names such as Abdel Benazzi, Daniel Dubroca, Serge Betsen, Thierry Dusautoir, Imanol Harinordoquy, Jean-Pierre Rives and Gerard Cholley are just some that spring to mind.
There has never been a problem in France of finding and producing superb forwards. But the trick, especially in the modern age of World Cup cycles, is having the careers of five or six future greats intersecting at the right time.
Think of the Bok pack that won RWC 2019 — Kitshoff, Mtawarira, Du Toit, Etzebeth, Vermeulen, Kolisi, Marx, Mbonambi, De Jager and Malherbe will almost all go down as Springbok greats.
It appears that with this current French pack, and this entire French team, several greats are in the making and they are overlapping together. That could be good fortune, but in reality it’s the product of good planning.
Their success and upward trajectory is the result of years of planning. The French system is much like South Africa’s, where clubs and provinces have a big say in the running of the game — often to the detriment of the senior national team.
France has more than 2,000 amateur clubs and 30 professional clubs. There is seldom unity and until recently there was more conflict between the top clubs and the Federation of French Rugby (FFR) than unity.
But changes to their system, such as enforcing the rule that each professional club has to contract at least 16 French players, has grown depth. That is vital for matches and tours that fall out of the Test window.
In 2021, many French Test players, including Dupont, were not released for the three-Test tour of Australia due to the maximum number of games they are allowed to play, and Covid restrictions. The three Tests were crammed into 11 days.
It meant Galthié had to broaden his selection, and despite a 2-1 series loss against a full-strength Australia, it was another excellent learning curve for the callow squad.
Galthié, who took over at the beginning of 2020, and the selectors, have stuck to the development of key players they identified years ago with a view to winning RWC 2023 on home soil.
As an example, flank Anthony Jelonch, No 8 Gregory Alldritt and scrumhalf Dupont started their careers for minnow club Auch. They have risen through the French ranks together.
Then there are the players who have come through the France Under-20 team that won the Junior World Championship on home soil in 2018 and again in Argentina in 2019.
Nine players from those two vintages — Demba Bamba, Pierre-Louis Barassi, Louis Carbonel, Kilian Geraci, Jean-Baptiste Gros, Romain Ntamack, Arthur Vincent, Cameron Woki and Hassane Kolingar — were capped by Galthié in his first year in charge.
Galthié has worked closely with successful under-20 coach Sébastien Piqueronies in ensuring those successful years weren’t squandered.
Piqueronies is tasked with taking care of developing the next generation. In late 2020, 46 teenagers from clubs across France were singled out for additional monitoring and support under a scheme set up by the FFR in conjunction with the clubs.
Galthié was the catalyst for the French revolution at Test level when he stepped into the role before the 2020 Six Nations and immediately had heads shaking.
He axed stalwarts such as Louis Picamoles and Maxime Medard and named 19 uncapped players in his first training squad. It was a bold approach, but one that is now paying off.
“There’s a lot of joy. When you win it means you’ve been doing good work, made the right choices and found the right direction,” Galthie told a news conference after his team won their eighth consecutive Test when beating England.
Such is Galthie’s confidence that the coach has already pencilled in the World Cup final. “Tonight was our 25th game together and the World Cup final will be our 46th,” he said after the England game.
France’s improvement has been steady and with renowned defence coach Shaun Edwards on board for more than a year now the final flaky element of the French game — porous defence — appears to have been resolved.
Edwards, who for so long organised Wales’ defence, is lauded as the man who has made the most difference and the numbers underline his impact.
France only trailed their opponents for a total of 13 minutes throughout the entire tournament. That happened in the opening game of their campaign, against Italy, and once they hit the front against the Azzurri in the 34th minute they never trailed again.
That highlights two things: they started games well and conceded few tries (seven), thanks to Edwards’ smothering system. They had a 90% tackle completion success throughout the tournament, missing only 69 and completing 633.
Their discipline was also vastly improved. France did not suffer one yellow or red card and conceded 47 penalties across their five matches.
But perhaps the biggest sign of their dominance came in the most turnovers won — 33 — which allowed them to transition from attack to defence more than any other team. And the French have the best attacking system in Europe, and possibly the world, to make the most of those opportunities.
The FFR is so impressed and so confident, that Galthié was handed a five-year extension to his contract soon after the final whistle blew against England, taking him through to RWC 2027.
Whether France have peaked or are still rising will only be revealed in due course. But the man who knows them best is confident the Six Nations Grand Slam success was not a destination, but part of a bigger, better journey.
“We’re on the right path. We’re still a young team that will grow and will improve,” Galthié said. “This team is only 26 years old on average. There is no reason why they should not improve.”
It’s an ominous warning to the rest of the rugby world. DM