Sport

RWC 2023

Years of French planning reaches climax for Rugby World Cup Stade de France blockbuster opening

Years of French planning reaches climax for Rugby World Cup Stade de France blockbuster opening
Antoine Dupont looks to pass the ball during practice ahead of their Rugby World Cup match against New Zealand at Stade de France on 7 September, 2023 in Paris, France. (Photo: David Rogers/Getty Images)

The opening match of Rugby World Cup 2023 between France and New Zealand will be an immediate yardstick of how both teams are faring.

The stadiums, fan parks, transport hubs, bars, restaurants, hotels and hundreds of other details needed to stage a World Cup successfully, are in place. France is ready for the biggest and arguably most highly-anticipated Rugby World Cup yet. But is the French team ready to deliver?

Not since New Zealand hosted RWC 2011, has there been so much pressure on a home team to perform. French rugby has seldom been as good as it is now, from juniors right through to the senior ranks.

On Friday night the hosts take on the All Blacks in a Pool A match. It’s rightly been termed a “blockbuster” because it will highlight whether French planning has paid off.

French rugby has been building for this moment for years. The pressure is immense. They have to embrace it.

“We practise. It’s part of the work we’ve done since the beginning of our mandate. We’ve evolved, we’ve progressed in managing the emotions of events,” coach Fabien Galthie said this week.

“Every competition is an event in itself. The World Cup is an event in its own right. We’ve prepared and trained to be the best we can be in that area. There’s also our performance and tactics and strategy. We mix these three components to tick as many boxes as possible to achieve victory.”

But deeper than the immediate match, this is a moment to see whether all the planning and preparation has paid off. French rugby has been on an upward curve at all levels and Les Blues are just the tip of the spear.

Read more in Daily Maverick: Rugby World Cup 2023

U20 Rugby World Cup France

The French team celebrate their victory with the trophy following the World Rugby U20 Championship 2023 final match against Ireland World Rugby Under 20 Championship Final on 14 July 2023, in Cape Town, South Africa. (Photo: Ashley Vlotman / Gallo Images / World Rugby)

Their Under-20s won the recent World Championship for a third straight time. Their clubs dominate in Europe and the national team won the 2022 Six Nations Grand Slam, beat the All Blacks by a record 40-25 in 2021 and have also been ranked No 1 in the last four years.

Under Galthie and captain Antoine Dupont, they have quickly developed a side purpose-built for this moment. When France were named hosts of RWC 2023 in controversial circumstances, besides ensuring the tournament as a whole would be a success, the French Rugby Federation (FFR) knew it had to build a team capable of capturing the nation’s imagination.

“Today (RWC opening game) is our 40th match (since Galthie took over). When we started out, we laid down some fairly simple rules based on a kind of vision: to bring French rugby together, to unite and share with the fans,” Galthie said.

“Little by little, we’ve felt the support building, the public has identified with the team and what it means. It’s been like this for four years now — in good times and bad.

 “Our own role is simply to play. We’re happy to play. We enjoy the moment and being with each other very much. That’s what’s at stake for us. We don’t carry any weight, we don’t have any baggage to weigh us down. We’re very happy to be playing, and especially to be starting against New Zealand on Friday.”

Fabien Galthie, Rugby World Cup

Head Coach of France Fabien Galthie. (Photo by Catherine Steenkeste/Getty Images)

Building a winning team

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 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, have 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 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. 

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.

Overlapping stars

France has always produced excellent players — names such as Abdel Benazzi, Daniel Dubroca, Serge Betsen, Thierry Dusautoir, Imanol Harinordoquy, Jean-Pierre Rives, Gerard Cholley, Serge Blanco, Yannick Jauzion and Phillipe Sella are just some that spring to mind. 

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. 

In Dupont, they have the perfect talisman. The scrumhalf was 2021 World Player of the Year and remains at the pinnacle of the sport. He plays with panache but is also technically brilliant. As captain his record is superb.

In his 18th Test as skipper, Dupont is yet to lose a match on home soil when leading the team winning all 12 games. His only career loss as captain came against Ireland earlier this year in Dublin.

He will make his 50th Test appearance at Stade de France against the All Blacks.

But it’s all about embracing the moment and Galthie spoke passionately about the opportunity that awaits him and his team, and which awaits the entire country.

“They’re [All Blacks] a magnificent first opponent, but first let’s talk about this competition. We’ve been passionate about the game since we were kids, we love the oval ball, and to be able to take part in the best that our sport has to offer… we’re so happy.

“We’re trying to take in the moment, all the best teams in the world arriving here on our soil to compete for seven weeks in what is the most beautiful, the best of our rugby, this competition.

“What could be better than New Zealand? I’ve said it before, and I’ll say it again, this is a team that hasn’t lost a match in the qualifying (Pool) phase since the World Cup began. Ever. 31 wins.

“This is a team that has three World Cup titles to its name, a team that has just won the last competition it took part in, the Four Nations (Rugby Championship).

“They’re on a 10-game winning streak (before losing to South Africa at Twickenham). We’re so happy to be playing them that Friday’s match is a celebration, a joy, a great joy for us. It’s wonderful.” DM

RWC facts (by Opta)

  • South Africa and New Zealand have each won the Rugby World Cup on three occasions, more than any other nation, with Australia (2) and England (1) the only other nations to lift the Webb Ellis Cup; the Springboks are the only side to boast a 100% winning record in Rugby World Cup finals (3/3) and have never conceded a try in a final.
  • Only on two occasions has a nation won the Six Nations or The Rugby Championship (incl. Tri Nations) and gone on to lift the Rugby World Cup in the same year, with England doing so in 2003 and South Africa managing it in 2019.
  • A host nation has won the Rugby World Cup on three previous occasions, New Zealand triumphing in 1987 and 2011, while South Africa won the tournament on home soil in 1995 — only twice before has a host nation failed to reach the quarter-finals (Wales in 1991 & England in 2015).
  • Chile will participate in their first Rugby World Cup, becoming the 26th different nation to feature in the tournament, while they will be the first debutant at a World Cup since Russia in 2011; meanwhile, Portugal will participate in just their second Rugby World Cup and their first since 2007, which was also hosted by France.
  • Wayne Barnes is set to become the first referee to officiate in five editions of the Rugby World Cup — he has taken charge of 21 tournament matches, with Nigel Owens being the only other referee to oversee 15+ matches in the competition (19).
  • Jason Leonard (England) and Richie McCaw (New Zealand) have each featured in 22 Rugby World Cup matches, more than any other player, however, New Zealand’s Sam Whitelock heads into the 2023 edition with 19 previous appearances and could break the record.
  • Jonah Lomu (New Zealand) and Bryan Habana (South Africa) hold the record for most tries scored at the Rugby World Cup (15) and jointly hold the record for most tries in a single edition of the tournament, along with Julian Savea (8 — Lomu 1999, Habana 2007, Savea 2015).
  • France v New Zealand, Australia v England and Australia v Wales are the three most played fixtures in the history of the Rugby World Cup (7 each) — France and New Zealand will face each other in the opening match this year, while Australia and Wales will square off once again in Lyon on September 24th.
  • South Africa’s Handré Pollard was the top points scorer in the 2019 Rugby World Cup (69), taking him to 162 overall in the tournament; however, the World Cup winning fly half is set to miss this year’s tournament, leaving Nicolas Sanchez (117) and Owen Farrell (101) as the only participating players with 100+ Rugby World Cup points.
  • Sam Whitelock (New Zealand) holds the record for most consecutive matches won by a player at the Rugby World Cup, having won 18 in a row between 2011 and 2019, while Frans Steyn (South Africa) has played in the most tournament matches without losing (17/17).

Craig Ray’s accommodation and travel for the opening RWC 2023 weekend is courtesy of MultiChoice.

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