Offloads the way forward for France

Date published: November 25 2016

France’s offloading game was world-class against the Wallabies on Saturday, but only if they build on this and tidy up key points of weakness can they hope to contend with the All Blacks.

Before the November Tests began we discussed how crucial it was for les Bleus to rediscover a truly French style of rugby. Two matches in and with only one change to the squad since the Wallabies game, it looks like France have found their identity.

Their most recent performance suggeFsts coach Guy Novès has settled on a style focused on running the ball. France’s first try against Australia was proof of their capabilities in this area. Before Virimi Vakatawa crossed the try-line France had covered 70 metres with the ball in hand.

As the game went on France made over four times more offloads than Australia – 34 in total – and that eagerness to offload allowed them to make an impressive 18 clean breaks over the course of the match. Five of these, unsurprisingly, came from Wesley Fofana.

Such a style of play will give France their best chance against the number one team in the world next weekend, especially given how physical New Zealand’s rugby has been lately. While the French did battle with the Australians, several Irish players needed medical attention after their clash with the Kiwis.

The French coaches agreed after the loss to Australia that their offloading game looked promising, though they specified that France must build on their second-half performance. As Novès put it: “It took us half the match to show that when we have the ball in hand and use our speed, we too are capable of causing difficulty for our opponents.”

France are on the right track, although, they will need a higher level of accuracy against the All Blacks. Following France’s loss to Australia, Novès said: “The players have realised that we needed to be more precise in that game.”

A crucial area where France lacked precision against the Wallabies was their goalkicking. In fact, Maxime Machenaud has not been at his best in either of the Test matches played this month, sitting on a kicking average of 62 percent.

On France’s two-test tour of Argentina back in June Baptiste Serin scored 100 percent of kicks he attempted, while Jules Plisson’s success rate was 71 percent – Machenaud for the record missed this tour due to taking part in the Top 14 final with Racing 92.

As last weekend’s result and hundreds before that game haved illustrated in the past, a few missed penalties can sometimes be the difference between winning and losing. Based on recent performances, it is not exactly outrageous to suggest that Novès should consider other kickers.

Another area of play which would benefit from some fine-tuning is the ruck. As mentioned above, France made an impressive amount of offloads against the Wallabies. They could not capitalise on them, though, due to the 14 turnovers they conceded to their Southern Hemisphere opponents.

Undeniably this was due in part to the determined Australian defence. But it could also be a sign that France did not offer enough support to the attacking player each time, often sending one man alone to break the defensive line.

With all this in mind, French number eight Louis Picamoles summed up the feeling of most teams when faced with an All Blacks fixture, saying: “Not many people will be betting on us.”

However, the principles which have formed the basis of France’s playing style in the November Tests so far seem to be a good fit for the side. In fact, eager French fans might wonder, in a world where Donald Trump is President-elect, why can’t France overthrow the All Blacks?

Novès though is slightly more realistic. He simply said: “We’re going to see if we can give them a headache.” If his men can stick to their own rugby but execute it with more precision, they should certainly be capable of that.

by Becky Grey