French improvements offsetting defeats

Date published: March 3 2017

With just five wins from thirteen games since Guy Novès’ reign began, many may feel it is time for the French head coach to give up on his attempts to reinvent French rugby.

Fellow coach Yannick Bru refers to it as a ‘project’ and ‘adventure’. The British press have spoken of a revival of French flair, but now fans seem ready to renounce Novès’ vision of a renewed offloading style for les Bleus.

There is no denying, it takes a brave person to be a French fan in this Six Nations. However, rather than criticism, Novès deserves gratitude – not just from the French but from all rugby fans. His vision in constructing a new style for his team has created arguably the most exciting matches in the tournament so far.

The Round Three defeat was never going to be an easy game. Novès’ men faced a Johnny Sexton-Conor Murray combination that could do no wrong before a sea of green in Dublin, and yet France still looked threatening.

The fact that last weekend’s loss has left France with no chance of taking home a trophy may be disappointing for fans, but their impressive attacking displays should provide hope with the Rugby World Cup drawing nearer.

In the midst of a four-year World Cup cycle, Novès’ side are still experimenting, building performances that will benefit them come 2019. In fact, listen to the French coach speak before games and you will notice he speaks of improvement, not victory.

Improvements can definitely be seen too; sometimes France looked devastatingly dynamic and inventive, but sadly they balanced this by handing Ireland penalties and committing careless ball handling errors.

There are certainly areas that Novès and his coaching team need to work on, but it would be a mistake to give up on their vision for the French game when it is so close to reaching fruition.

One such area is discipline. France have conceded more penalties than any other team in the competition. Some of this can be put down to inexperience, like when 22-year-old Baptiste Serin gave Sexton an easy kick in front of the sticks when he grabbed Murray off the ball out of the scrum.

Another simple score awarded to Ireland in the 74th minute cost France a losing bonus point, which could prove crucial later with such tight competition for third place.

A bigger issue for France in this tournament is handling errors. Against Ireland, the first of these led to Rémi Lamerat’s try being disallowed – a try which could have changed the course of the game.

On six separate occasions, France were gaining ground with smart offloads but wasted their chance by fumbling the ball. This has been a feature of all the side’s games in the Six Nations; it is not the opposition’s defence that has denied France tries, but their own errors.

It is clear that Novès knows where his side is going wrong, however, and he has shown that he is willing to compromise and tweak his game plan rather than blindly push on. This is perhaps why we have seen improvements in other areas of France’s game which let them down in the autumn.

On Saturday, Les Bleus looked like they believed they could win and so continued to contest the match until the death – proving they have resolved their issues with fitness. There were times when Guilhem Guirado and his team evoked the golden era of French rugby; Serin’s step on Rob Kearney or Camille Lopez’s cross-field kick to Yoann Huget, for example.

This fitness also explains why France only shipped one try faced with an almost flawless Irish attack. There has been so much focus on the French offloading game that many have failed to notice their significant improvements in defence. Time and again, Ireland came within five metres of the try-line, but the blue wall remained firm.

Novès has brought the team a long way in a short space of time and deserves credit for this. France can no longer challenge for the title, and arguably were never iron-clad contenders at all, but a third-place finish is still within reach if they beat Wales on the final weekend in Paris.

Regardless of where the final two games of the tournament take them, this French team does have one thing to celebrate. Critics have said Novès is incapable of building a team that can beat top five sides. After the change to Scotland’s rankings last week, those critics are now officially wrong.

by Becky Grey