Following a 35-17 victory for France over Japan in their Autumn Nations Series fixture, here’s our five takeaways from the match at Stadium de Toulouse.
The top line
Greasy conditions on both the pitch surface and with ball in hand conspired to restrict the ambitions of both teams as France overcame Japan on Sunday. Played in misty rain for most of the game, France’s discipline, greater power and invention saw them extend their unbeaten run to 13 matches and saw them finish 2022 unbeaten, an ominous sign for the hosts of the 2023 Rugby World Cup.
With Damian Penaud, Thomas Ramos and Matthieu Jalibert in imperious form in the backs, the forward effort from France‘s world class operators provided them with enough ball to score four exceptionally well crafted tries, as Japan struggled to compete at the breakdown.
After half time however, we saw the Brave Blossoms stage something of a fightback as they worked out that keeping the ball out of contact and using fast, deft pop passes would serve them better that seeking contact. Naoto Saito and Siosaia Fifita crossed for a couple of consolation tries, just reward for a stronger second half performance from Japan.
The 10 debate
For as long as most of us can remember, Jalibert and Romain Ntamack have been competing for a France 10 shirt at one level or another. In the U20s, we saw them play 12 and 10 in partnership, an experiment that was repeated at senior level a couple of times last season but simply lacked the power plays in the inside centre channel that are so needed in the Test match arena.
Since then, Jalibert’s injuries saw him unavailable in part of last season, only for that to coincide with both a return to fitness and form for Ntamack which subsequently saw the Toulouse man become an ever present and retain the jersey this autumn. However, whilst Ntamack has always shown that he has pace for the magical moment and is by far the superior defender, his game control for both Toulouse and France has always been questioned by many. On Sunday, without the brilliance of Antoine Dupont alongside him, he was once again stodgy, hesitant, error laden and, other than an excellent grubber for Penaud’s first try, he lacked impact and direct.
Enter Jalibert, who for the second time this year, lit up the French backline with a 25 minute cameo that saw his create tries for Penaud’s brace, followed by a magnificent chip and chase to send Anthony Jelonch crashing over in the corner.
The debate will rage on in France and is as polarised as Smith v Farrell is in the UK, but on the evidence of this match, the Bordeaux-Begles man has a lot more invention and far more game control that Ntamack is currently displaying.
Japan will bemoan that this is their fifth consecutive loss, their worst losing streak since early 2015, but they can take some consolation that their last few weeks has seen them playing on the road against some seriously in form Tier One nations.
In the first half they were lucky to stay in touch, battered in contact by the power of the French back-row, pressured in midfield by the blitz defence, and pretty much monstered in the set-piece, where their scrum came under intense pressure and with Charles Ollivon dismantling the visitors’ lineout as he helped himself to three of Japan’s throws.
The half time chat clearly revolved around using agility and hand skill to keep the ball out of contact and away from the marauding hands of the French jackallers. The sprint through try scored by Saito was a beauty but Shaun Edwards will be furious with the defence of Ramos and Ntamack failing to close down the Japanese carriers, both of whom stayed off their man and failed to fire a shot in the tackle. A lovely lineout move, again keeping the ball out of contact, saw an out-to-in pass off clean ball and Fifita crashed over, executed a clear training ground plan with some accuracy.
Japan will be stationed at Toulouse for the 2023 Rugby World Cup and it’s great that they have both experienced the stadium in this match and also, importantly, have a few positives to take out from this match.
The 2022 French team bases its success upon defensive excellence, set-piece dominance and a miserly concession of penalties, which tends to go against every stereotype that’s held against French rugby. Conceding only six offences on Sunday, their consistency and legality is absolutely class leading in the game right now, and with jackallers of the quality of Julien Marchand, Gregory Alldritt and Ollivon, and a defence brilliantly led by the huge Fickou, any side wishing to beat them cannot afford to concede any of the key areas of structured rugby.
— Planet Rugby (@PlanetRugby) November 20, 2022
This season, they’ve improved their depth in several positions whilst also at times, like against the Wallabies and South Africa, learning to win ugly. Ramos has been a revelation at full-back, stepping in so seamlessly for the injured Melvyn Jaminet that he is now considered favourite to keep the shirt. This game also saw promising displays from Romain Taofifenua and Reda Wardi to add further depth to their stocks. Maxime Lucu and Baptiste Couilloud also both had useful game time and whilst the former had some sticky moments in the rain, his break to create Ollivon’s try was a French move that was a carbon copy of Dupont’s break against England in 2020 that also resulted in a try for the skipper.
The road ahead
Looking forward, France are positioned immaculately for World Cup 2023 and red hot favourites for the Six Nations, even given Ireland’s excellence. Best of all, they have areas for improvement in leadership, selection and execution.
Eddie Jones often says you need five world class players to win a World Cup. France are stacked with some greats of the modern era – Dupont, Fickou, Penaud in the backline; Cyril Baille, Marchand, Cameron Woki, Alldritt and Ollivon in the forwards. With the emergence of the support cast mentioned previously and with legality and discipline at the centre of their culture, they couldn’t be in ruder health.
However, despite his World Rugby Player of the Year nomination, Dupont’s form has been patchy since getting the captaincy. He is a reluctant leader, one that relies upon personal brilliance and example over motivational words. With Ollivon returning and now once approaching his best form as the world’s premier blindside flanker, his leadership skills will undoubtedly once again come to the fore and it’s an absolute certainty he’ll go into February restored as France’s skipper, partly as he’s a natural candidate but importantly to free up Dupont’s mind to allow him to just focus on being the devastating scrum-half we know him to be and regaining the consistency of 2021. It might seem harsh on Dupont, but many think it’s the last piece to put in place in the magnificent French jigsaw.
France couldn’t be in a better place right now and with a year to go before their home tournament, the World Cup is theirs to lose.