After France made it 12 successive wins with a dramatic triumph over the Springboks, surely victory number 13 beckons against Japan this weekend?
Les Bleus have already enjoyed a tremendous year, with their first Six Nations Grand Slam since 2010 the highlight, but remaining unbeaten would also be a significant marker just 10 months out from their home Rugby World Cup.
After overcoming the Springboks in Marseille, Fabien Galthie’s men have now beaten every other side in the top 10 of the world rankings over the past 12 months. They are favourites for the global tournament for a reason and, as a result, excitement is very much building within the country.
There must be a word of caution, however. Ireland – in 2018 – know what it is like to be in an excellent position with the World Cup on the horizon, only to suffer a decline and go out in embarrassing fashion.
It is why the performances during the Autumn Nations Series have been slightly concerning. While they showed tremendous spirit, resilience and fitness to overcome Australia and South Africa, they were outplayed in both Tests.
France could have easily been zero from two, so it is important Galthie, his coaches and the players do not forget that as they look ahead to a huge 2023.
We certainly don’t think they will ‘do an Ireland’ but it does show that they are nowhere near the complete package and need to improve certain areas of their game going into the next Six Nations.
Unfortunately for Les Bleus, they are unlikely to learn anything more from their match with Japan this weekend, if the Brave Blossoms’ performance against England is anything to go by.
Jamie Joseph’s side, after coming so close to defeating the All Blacks two weeks earlier, were a let-down at Twickenham as they were hammered 52-13 by the Red Rose.
Joseph has named a new team but we expect a similar outcome in Toulouse as the hosts seek to maintain their outstanding run of results.
Where the game will be won
The conundrum for Japan when they play any tier one nation is how they can negate the physicality of their opponents. Their usual tactic is to try and take play away from the tighter exchanges where their skills can really come to the fore. Joseph’s charges failed to do that against England as the Red Rose controlled possession and territory throughout the contest.
The Japanese also kicked poorly and simply invited pressure, so that is one big area they have to rectify. Elsewhere, set-piece improvement is a must. When teams play attacking, fluent rugby, everyone focuses on the end result, but ultimately it all starts on finding that stability in scrum, lineout and maul.
In 2015, when the Brave Blossoms famously defeated South Africa, the front-row were rock solid on their own ball, while they were disciplined without it, preventing the Boks from getting too many opportunities to win penalties and go to their maul. That was also the case during the 2019 World Cup as they defeated both Ireland and Scotland by laying an excellent foundation. If they can do that once again then it might make France think twice but, if not, it will be another long afternoon for the visitors.
Last time they met
What they said
France full-back Thomas Ramos insists that they must maintain their focus and not ‘relax’ against a supposedly weaker Japan side.
“It was the watchword of the week,” Ramos said. “We still have this last game to end this tour in style. To lose on Sunday would call into question what was done against Australia and South Africa.
“To disrespect this Japanese team would be to put a spoke in the wheel. We are therefore really focused on this last match.”
Japan head coach Joseph is expecting a physical test from France, which is why he has dropped Kotaro Matsushima to the bench.
“We want a bit more physicality,” he told reporters. “Kotaro is a weapon on attack but on defence we’re going to get a lot of pressure.
“Bringing him off the bench brings pressure off the team around those areas. Kotaro will impact the game later on when it gets a bit loose. He’ll be dangerous.
“Our mentality behind our team is to give these guys an opportunity to test themselves under extreme pressure.
“All our team is light on Test match experience. It’s important for the World Cup they get a taste of what it will be like, if they make the team.”
Players to watch
Galthie evidently wants to finish the year in style and that is shown by the team selection, but there are opportunities for a few fringe players to impress. None more so than scrum-half Maxime Lucu, who takes his place in the XV following Antoine Dupont’s suspension. Lucu knows that Dupont is first choice when available but it is still a chance to show his abilities from the start, while the French coaches will also want a reliable back-up should a similar situation occur in 2023.
Lucu doesn’t have the star quality of Dupont but, like all scrum-halves from France, he has a very good all-round game and dictates play superbly from the base. He will give plenty of good ball to Romain Ntamack, who needs a big game after struggling against both Australia and South Africa. Ntamack has only just returned from injury and that has been obvious from the past two matches, but this is an opportunity for him to regain his form.
The half-backs will expect their pack to do the job in laying a platform, with newbie Reda Wardi having a big role to play. Cyril Baille’s injury has opened the door for Wardi and the loosehead will attempt to repeat his effort from the previous week against the Springboks. The 27-year-old did well after Baille went off in Marseille and he will look to put the Japanese under pressure.
Japan’s front-row will ultimately play a significant part in the end result. The trio faltered against an England outfit which attacked them throughout the contest and they will need to stay stronger in Toulouse. As a result of their struggles at Twickenham, the genuinely world-class Kazuki Himeno was rather subdued so, if they can at least have stability, then it will bring the number eight into the game.
Without that platform, it will put an inexperienced backline under pressure. Head coach Joseph has admitted that they are giving fringe players some game time looking ahead to the World Cup and it is therefore a baptism of fire for centre Shogo Nakano and fly-half Seungsin Lee, while half-back Naoto Saito gets a chance to start ahead of Yutaka Nagare. They are all skilful players and will be threats if they can get some front foot ball, but it is almost impossible to impress when your pack is in reverse.
He may be 34 now but Michael Leitch remains a top class performer and was Japan’s standout against England last weekend. The flanker has lost a yard of pace but he is still an incredible athlete who gets around the field remarkably well. It means that Leitch does everything proficiently, from making his tackles to competing at the breakdown and also getting his hands on the ball.
His battle with France’s outstanding flanker and leader Charles Ollivon will be fun to watch. The Toulon back-row missed the Six Nations through injury but returned to the French set-up for the Japan tour in July and is already approaching something like his top form. Ollivon is the complete player, who has remarkable strength and athleticism, while also having the rugby smarts. He was outstanding against the Wallabies and Springboks and we expect that form to continue this weekend.
It is almost certain to be 13 in a row for Les Bleus as they face a much-changed Japan outfit. The Brave Blossoms were disappointing against England and we can’t see them getting close to Galthie’s men, who have too much power and quality for the Japanese. France by 40 points.
2022: France won 20-15 in Tokyo
2022: France won 42-23 in Toyota
2017: France and Japan drew 23-23 in Paris
2015: France won 47-21 in Auckland
2003: France won 51-29 in Townsville
1973: France won 30-18 in Bordeaux
France: 15 Thomas Ramos, 14 Damian Penaud, 13 Gael Fickou, 12 Jonathan Danty, 11 Yoram Moefana, 10 Romain Ntamack, 9 Maxime Lucu, 8 Gregory Alldritt, 7 Charles Ollivon (c), 6 Anthony Jelonch, 5 Romain Taofifenua, 4 Cameron Woki, 3 Uini Atonio, 2 Julien Marchand, 1 Reda Wardi
Replacements: 16 Peato Mauvaka, 17 Dany Priso, 18 Sipili Falatea, 19 Florian Verhaeghe, 20 Bastien Chalureau, 21 Sekou Macalou, 22 Bapiste Couilloud, 23 Matthieu Jalibert
Japan: 15 Ryohei Yamanaka, 14 Dylan Riley, 13 Shogo Nakano, 12 Ryoto Nakamura, 11 Siosaia Fifita, 10 Seungsin Lee, 9 Naoto Saito, 8 Kazuki Himeno, 7 Pieter Labuschagné, 6 Michael Leitch, 5 Jack Cornelsen, 4 Warner Dearns, 3 Jiwon Gu, 2 Atsushi Sakate (c), 1 Keita Inagaki
Replacements: 16 Kosuke Horikoshi, 17 Craig Millar, 18 Syuhei Takeuchi, 19 Wimpie Van der Walt, 20 Tevita Tatafu, 21 Yutaka Nagare, 22 Hayata Nakao, 23 Kotaro Matsushima
Date: Sunday, November 20
Venue: Stadium de Toulouse
Kick-off: 14:00 local (13:00 GMT)
Referee: Andrew Brace (Ireland)
Assistant Referees: Frank Murphy (Ireland), Chris Busby (Ireland)
TMO: Tom Foley (England)