This is a new era for French rugby. Forget that tiresome old cliché about ‘which France will turn up’ because this team is not plagued by the wild and often self-destructive mood swings of the past. They shine consistently, and every neutral should be extremely excited about that.
How have they come so far? They started, when Galthie took over following the 2019 World Cup, by embracing different aspects of professionalism, aspects often ignored or discarded in previous set-ups. They don’t merely espouse the cherished razzle-dazzle attack synonymous with their game; they can be disciplined, organised, structured, and defend so brilliantly.
I spent some time with Shaun Edwards last week. He is widely regarded as the world’s best defence coach, and his fingerprints were all over that performance. Galthie has been a massive admirer of Edwards for a long, long time. In fact, when he coached me at Montpellier in 2012, we used a rush defence model he’d taken from Edwards and Warren Gatland at Wasps.
If you can put opposition – and it doesn’t matter who – under pressure consistently, produce repeat efforts, gobble up their time and space, you can make them look very ordinary. That’s exactly what happened to New Zealand.
Antoine Dupont, the immense scrum-half, moved into the defensive line whenever France had to defend behind their own 10m mark. Teams normally flick their scrum-half into the line when the opposition makes the 22, but France did it sooner. And watch how many times Dupont caught Rieko Ioane, New Zealand’s outside centre, and how completely lost the much-vaunted All Blacks backline was made to look, decked time and again behind the gain line.
Gael Fickou and Damien Penaud often go unheralded in defence, but each was outstanding in how they read play, steamed up to shut down options and made their collisions tell. Clermont have deployed Penaud at 13 rather than on the wing this season; he wouldn’t have been used to executing his defensive role in that wider position, but his opportunistic try came from exerting massive pressure on New Zealand. Don’t forget, when Penaud pounced to pick off David Havili’s pass and race under the posts, he was doing so from All Blacks turnover ball.
This was stabbing your finger into All Black chests and saying: ‘right, you’re here in Paris with 80,000 madmen screaming from the stands, and we’re going to batter the hell out of you. What are you going to do about it?’.
Most teams would back off after losing possession at the breakdown, allow New Zealand time and space, scramble and use the touchline as an extra defender. Not France. Not Penaud. His razor-sharp assessment in reading that situation, and execution of the blitz and interception which put the game to bed, shows how confident he is within the system.
If Edwards brought near-irrepressible snarl in defence, Galthie brought simplicity to the French attack. This was not a strategic attacking display – it was actually pretty straightforward: win the ball, run as hard as we can, repeat. Bludgeon the mighty All Blacks into submission with unrelenting brutality.
The week before, Ireland bossed New Zealand physically too, but they took a slightly more layered approach. Their ultra-controlled, multi-pod attack shifted the point of contact. They played out the back and got to the defensive edges. This was different. This was stabbing your finger into All Black chests and saying: ‘right, you’re here in Paris with 80,000 madmen screaming from the stands, and we’re going to batter the hell out of you. What are you going to do about it?’.
They did batter New Zealand, and how the crowd revelled in it. Watching from commentary box, I will never forget that atmosphere.
We cannot overlook the influence of Thibault Giroud, the French strength and conditioning guru, on their spectacular revival either. A former elite bobsledder, American footballer and sprinter, Giroud’s role behind the scenes is seldom recognised publicly.
He has transformed the training programme, physical attributes and fitness of the French squad. Their dynamism, and capacity to stay dynamic for 80 minutes, is like nothing we’ve seen before from Les Bleus. Look at the French sides of the past two decades – whenever we played them with Scotland, we knew their energy levels would fall off a cliff in the final quarter, if only we could hang in until then.
This improved athleticism meshes neatly with what Edwards has created in defence. If you’re organised, your line is broken less, and you’re doing fewer lung-burning scramble runs back towards your own 22. You aren’t doing work you shouldn’t be, because you’re settled in your system.
That allows the edge and explosiveness of the French heavy hitters to tell. Anthony Jelonch, Gregory Alldritt, Cameron Woki and Mauvaka laid waste to New Zealand. They blew the All Blacks off the pitch – and there aren’t many teams who manage that. Thanks to Giroud’s off-field work, France are physically better and more intense than ever.
If we look at the bigger picture, changes in rules and regulations to the Top 14 have helped drive this evolution. Tightening quotas for home-reared players have meant foreigners moving on, and more game time for young French prospects. The quality of the league is night and day from my seven years in the top two divisions from 2012 to 2019.
That is preparing people for the step up to international rugby. And you can now liken the quality and depth of squad at Galthie’s disposal to that of England, the richest nation of all. Look how close France ran them in last year’s Autumn Nations Cup final with what was effectively a B-slash-C team. Their Under-20 World Cup winners from 2018 and 2019 are flourishing and French kids are enjoying more Top 14 exposure. France are organised with an elite coaching staff, and a surfeit of abrasive, dominant athletes.
Take Mauvaka as an example. Everyone was worried about missing Julian Marchand because he’s one of the best hookers in the world. Up steps Mauvaka to barrel in for a double in a hugely impressive display. You could swap out Woki for Bernard le Roux. Charles Ollivon, the brilliant captain, is still to come back from injury. French rugby is in rude health. They host the World Cup in two years, and when you see the raucous bedlam from the home fans, you wouldn’t bet against them going all the way.
In recent years, we could have accused some French players of being plagued by a ‘footballer’ mentality. Galthie has a different selection policy and a very different attitude.
And that’s the thing about the French public – they have their team back after an age in the doldrums. Living here, I sensed an embarrassment at the national team’s continuous failures under previous regimes, despite their rich talent, playing numbers and resources. Now, those people are in raptures. They can’t believe what they have again. Dropping my kids at school on Monday morning, speaking to my neighbours, seeing the postman, it’s all everyone wants to talk about.
The pride, passion and enthusiasm they have, and the drive that will give the players, is intangible and immeasurable. I haven’t seen it at this level in the nine years I’ve been in France. That’s special – really special.
A few years ago, the French supporters would never have thought their team capable of winning a title. That might sound hilariously silly to fans of other, less bountiful rugby nations, but believe me, it’s true. And silverware the next step now. They were second, just, in last term’s Six Nations; can they go one step further?
Look at how Ireland performed in the autumn, how England beat world champions South Africa in an awesome Test match, how Wales ran the Springboks so close, and how they and Scotland put Australia away. What a championship we’ll have in 2022. How much better is it going to be with this level of French performance on a regular basis.
In all this revolutionary work from Galthie, Edwards, Giroud and the players, the most important facet is the quality of the people involved. I’m not talking about how well Gael Fickou can tackle, or how far Melvyn Jaminet can kick; I’m referring to the personality traits within the team. The cultural fabric that has been woven through this group.
In recent years, we could have accused some French players of being plagued by a ‘footballer’ mentality. Galthie has a different selection policy and a very different attitude. The type of people he has chosen is a huge point of difference.
When you have Romain Ntamack swaggering out of his own in-goal area, burning Jordie Barrett and chucking no-look passes, it gives a sense of the confidence he has in his skills and fitness, but also the confidence he has in his team-mates. Previous French sides looked scared and brittle. Now they are laden with Top 14 winners and European champions and back themselves on the grandest stage.
With success comes expectation. With expectation comes pressure. How will France handle that? I’m pleased to say, having worked with a young Dupont at Castres, and having shared a beer with him after the game on Saturday, his mentality hasn’t changed. Dupont is frequently described in France as an ‘extra-terrestrial’ and does sometimes feel as though he was forged on a different rugby planet. Very few players, let alone scrum-halves, can take the ball from completely unstructured play, with no platform, break one tackle, shrug off a forward, fend someone else and run through a centre. Fewer still do so against New Zealand. And even fewer than that can prevent such excellence and adulation go to their heads.
Dupont is calm and controlled. He loves his sport, yes, but he remains a lovely, level-headed human being. He isn’t going to become arrogant – he’s too mature. The hype doesn’t seem to bother him. That is the new French mindset in microcosm.
Seeing the players socialise post-match, nobody was going berserk. They weren’t getting carried away. They hadn’t experienced anything like that in a French jersey, in the Stade de France, before, yet they weren’t leaping around like lads on a stag do. Instead, they finished their night of celebration with a beautiful three-course meal and a few glasses of red as night fell in Paris. How suave, how fitting, and how wonderfully French.
What came across most in my conversations with them that evening, was how much it meant to give that joy to the French people. They felt it so special to give back to the fans and see how it lifted those they represent.
Everyone who watched that game will appreciate when French rugby is on a high, world rugby is on a high. The flair is back. This team is back. France had been posted missing for a decade, but now they’re here. The French are overjoyed, and as rugby fans, all of us should be too.