With three wins from three played, many are wondering if the French are back to their best. Are we witnessing a French rugby renaissance?
A strong start in 2020 saw four valuable points gained in their opening Six Nations match victory over England. Within sixty minutes of game two (against Italy) the try bonus point was already secured, and their best performance so far, was saved for game three.
Away to Wales, the French rugby renaissance became clearer, as they showed precision in attack and, resolute defence to register their first win in a decade, in Cardiff.
A French rugby renaissance
Romain Ntamack has been in sensational form in the #GuinnessSixNations
An early contender for a Player of the Championship nomination? pic.twitter.com/k2WGPzHl7j
— Guinness Six Nations (@SixNationsRugby) March 2, 2020
Starting to see the best of ‘Les Bleus’
Naturally talk (though not from the team itself) has moved onto whether they can win the ‘Grand Slam’ this year. They have shown promise for a while, but only in patches. France has always produced talented players but this current squad is starting to put in 80-minute performances, not a good quarter or half before imploding under the slightest pressure.
So what has really changed this year and can this be sustained over the final two rounds of the championship?
Coaching team no strangers to success
Fabien Galthié is the latest man charged with improving the fortunes of the national team. A former captain, Galthié’s remit is two-fold; (i) Get the team playing the French way (ii) Win a home World Cup. Like messers Lievremont and Saint-Andre before him, being a successful ex-player turned coach can be both a ‘gift and a curse’.
What Galthié definitely brings to the role is a winning mentality. As a player he was a winner and at Montpellier and Toulon he coached both sides to the Top 14 title. He knows what it takes to be successful and this has been lacking from the team in recent times.
His first appointment was Raphael Ibanez (another ex-French captain) as his Team Manager, his second Shaun Edwards as Defence Coach. Ibanez will no doubt have played a key role in securing the services of his ex-Wasps colleague Edwards.
The ‘Edwards effect’ in the 2020 French Rugby renaissance
Shaun Edwards makes his teams harder to beat. His influence can already be seen in France’s strong defensive effort in the first three weeks of this year’s tournament. France for so long had only hired from within; whether reluctant or too proud to ever appoint coaches from overseas. Galthié wants the best for his squad so has bucked the trend and hired the top defensive coach around (irrespective of his nationality).
Under 20’ World Champions making their mark at senior level
For the past two years, France has won the Under 20 Rugby World Championships. A number of their stars at junior level have excelled since moving into the professional ranks.
The half-back pairing of Anton Dupont and Romain Ntamack have been outstanding for both Toulouse and the national team.
Such calm, such composure for the intercept. And Romain Ntamack did plenty more aside from that key moment to be named #GuinnessSixNations Player of the Match against Wales. pic.twitter.com/CsbJ7IOxnK
— Guinness Six Nations (@SixNationsRugby) March 1, 2020
At times against Wales it seemed Like Ntamack was in complete control of the game. He kicked his goals with ease and scored a great intercept try. In possession it seemed like he had the time and poise to do whatever he wanted in attack. It was almost Dan Carter-esque!
Dupont meanwhile is a cross between a typical South African and French number nine. The general on the pitch, his combination of speed and physicality reminds me of a young Joost van der Westhuizen. He has been the best player in this year’s Six Nations by some distance.
Alongside them, the likes of Damien Penaud and Demba Bamba have also impressed and now have the experience of some 30+ professional games under their belts. All are 23 and under and so this in part explains, the current wave of optimism within French rugby.
Key decision-makers excelling this Six Nations
In any Rugby XV, numbers two, seven, eight in the forwards and nine,ten, fifteen in the backs are the key positions. Luckily for France these also happen to be their best players.
Ollivon and Alldritt (at seven & eight) have excelled in attack and more importantly defence so far. The new captain Ollivron tops the scoring charts with three tries but his best work has been in the lineout and his game management of the officials. Alldritt has given the team that ‘go forward’ ball so cherished in building any attacking platform.
His work in defence and at the breakdown though have outweighed this. In the top five tacklers (in the tournament) with 48 successful hits so far, he also leads France’s turnover count.
The merits of the halfback pairing have already been discussed at length. In adding these parts together we now see a stronger team, no longer reliant on the mercurial talents of a single player.
Winning breeds self-confidence
France have started to win close games; away games; games that last year (ahead by 16) they contrived to lose. With this comes the confidence that they can beat the best teams at home and away. Winning on the road is a rarity in the Six Nations; for example, Scotland’s chances of winning the Calcutta Cup improve markedly when the game is played in Edinburgh. 37 years since they last triumphed at Twickenham (although a draw in 2019 was oh so close).
Wales, Ireland, and England seldom lose at home, and so the crucial fixture list often dictates who will win that year’s Triple Crown. France has only won 48% of games away from Paris in the modern Six Nations era.
Winning in Wales though was huge, and you would expect the same outcome in Sunday’s fixture in Scotland.
As the (overseas) victories mount up, the confidence and experience that comes from that will only aid the team’s psyche. A renaissance, as such, in rugby terms. This team has become more than ‘just good in patches’
They look likely to go far in 2020; even if Coronavirus interruptions to this year’s competition may have an effect on the standings. Yet, by the French team’s deeds, over the next two weekends, they should confirm their newfound confidence to the Six Nations rugby public; as the Championship wraps up its regulation matches.
Main image credit: Embed from Getty Images