France have certainly caught the public’s imagination over the past two Six Nations seasons. The Fabien Galthie-Sean Edwards revolution stirring the rugby public’s imagination. Evoking memories of the carefree Rugby a la Champagne that seemed long consigned to the history books.
They face an almighty challenge on Saturday evening at the Stade de France. Wales will be chasing their fifth Six Nations Grand Slam of the professional era. Then they will have to squeeze in their unfulfilled fixture against Scotland from week three.
Win both those matches with a four-try bonus point, all the while denying Wales any bonus point, and the title will be theirs. Lose and questions will be asked about their mettle and mental fortitude.
As the match draws closer, LWOS Rugby asks whether France are doing enough to justify the praise coming their way?
An obvious area where France have to improve on Saturday is their ability to last the full 80 minutes.
In their three matches in the tournament, the only time they have scored in the last 20 minutes was when Teddy Thomas crossed for a try in the 73rd minute against Italy in Rome.
Against Ireland, Damien Penaud’s try on 54 minutes wrapped up their scoring for the day. Whilst at Twickenham against England it stopped even earlier when Mathieu Jalibert scored the penalty that put France 20-13 ahead.
In contrast, Wales are renowned as strong finishers. Most notably in their 40-24 win over England in round three when they scored 16 points in the final 18 minutes after Eddie Jones’ team had drawn level.
Saturday’s match will be no time to return to the conservative last 20 minutes from Twickenham. However, do they have the stamina to play their expansive, fast-flowing game for the entirety of the match?
Things were going so well for Galthie’s charges. However, then came the outbreak of Covid in the camp that scuppered the Scotland fixture. Then there were quick efforts by the French Rugby Federation (FFR) to brush the matter under the carpet.
Federation president and ex-France coach Bernard Laporte’s response that the internal inquiry found nothing untoward. Either with Galthie’s decision to leave camp to watch his son play or the players’ decision to pop out in Rome for some waffles. However, it did hold off the threat of French Health Minister Roxana Maracineanu to stop France’s participation.
Those lapses in discipline can often be mirrored on the field. Their loss to Scotland in round two in 2020, a defeat that ended their Grand Slam hopes, came after Mohamed Haouas was sent off for throwing a needless punch.
There has been nothing to compare this year. Although their defeat at Twickenham shows that France still have a habit of blinking when favoured to win. With both their remaining matches on home soil there is no ready-made excuse if they lose again.
What now for Ntamack?
Romain Ntamack was the player first turned to as a way to lift their spirits and give them the joy de vie. Something that France lacked for so long.
He responded well, even though he had rarely been Toulouse’s first choice 10. This is a situation that continues to this day with Zack Holmes and Thomas Ramos chosen ahead of him. Ntamack instead often starts in the centres.
Now though he faces genuine competition from Mathieu Jalibert. He has fully taken his opportunity when Ntamack’s jaw injury ruled him out of the tournament.
Teaming the two together would create the double pivot that most teams are trying to use. However, that would break up the nascent centre partnership between Gael Fikou and Virimi Vakatawa. Thes two combine nimble feet, deft hands, and powerful, line-breaking running.
That is a decision that can wait. However, Ntamack’s presence in the wings means that Jalibert will need to be at his best over these two matches to ensure the number 10 shirt is his when France return to action later in the year after the Six Nations.
Anything but his best is likely to mean Wales returning from Paris with another trophy for their cabinet.
Plenty to prove against Wales
While the Twickenham jitters will be a niggle for Galthie, in the long run, and with the France 2023 World Cup in mind, it is a bit of an irrelevance seeing as France will be at home.
As such with both matches in Paris the French coaching team will be able to gauge who can handle to expectancy of winning vital matches at home. They failed to do so when last hosting the tournament in 2007, losing in Paris to England in the semifinals and then Argentina to finish fourth.
Wales have been there before and have huge experience in their ranks and confidence in everything they do. It is a massive test for France in the Six Nations, and they haven’t quite done enough to suggest that it will be their day and not Wales’.
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