Did the Springboks break France? What has caused Les Bleus’ Six Nations slump since World Cup exit

Jared Wright
France's players react at the end of the Rugby World Cup quarterfinal match between France and South Africa at the Stade de France in Saint-Denis

France's players react at the end of the Rugby World Cup quarterfinal match between France and South Africa at the Stade de France in Saint-Denis.

France just haven’t been the same since their Rugby World Cup defeat to the Springboks after enduring a slow start to the Six Nations.

Les Bleus were hot favourites to win the 2023 World Cup, but the hosts were dumped out of the tournament in the quarter-finals, falling to the eventual champions South Africa.

Fabien Galthie‘s side were outstanding in the four years leading up to their home tournament but underdelivered when the global showpiece arrived. They haven’t been the same since, and we take a look at some of the reasons why.

World Cup hangover

During France’s two matches so far in 2024, there has been a growing belief from the South African public that the Springboks have ‘broken’ Les Bleus, but is that really the case? The short answer is that it is too early to tell. The long answer is that there are signs to suggest they have.

There is certainly a bit of a hangover that France are trying to cure, but in this case, they don’t have some old ingredients that did the trick before, namely the world-class tonic Antoine Dupont and some key coaching voices who have left the set-up – Laurent Labit, Karim Ghezal and Raphael Ibanez (more on that later).

While the current Six Nations squad members and coaches will vehemently refute suggestions that there has been a mental impact on those players who failed to live up to the pre-World Cup hype, they are human, and it has to have had an effect.

Missing stars

It’s not just the mental impact but the Dupont-sized void in the French backline. While the scrum-half has a diminutive frame, his influence and capabilities cannot be replicated or truly replaced in the squad.

There is an argument that France’s structures rely too heavily on Dupont, and while there is a lot of merit to that assertion, you can’t really blame them for doing that. Few superlatives can truly define the French magician’s ability and influence over the side accurately as he continues to become one of the greatest the game has seen, if he is not one already.

Maxime Lucu is a classy operator in his own right, but frankly, it’s just not the same, and we have seen the stark reality of that during the opening fortnight of the Six Nations. Dupont’s freakish ability around the pitch – being able to kick off both feet and produce incredible moments that leave you in awe – cannot be replicated, but that’s not the only thing he brings to the table. The skipper not only sets the standards but drives them and is crucial in controlling Les Bleus’ attacking and defensive structures.

Outside Dupont, Galthie is without several other key players in his squad, with Romain Ntamack’s continued absence hurting the side as well. While Matthieu Jalibert is an incredible talent and an outrageous player in his own right, he doesn’t quite have the same control at Test match level as Ntamack and his kicking game isn’t up to the same standard either.

Jalibert has error-ridden moments in Test matches that are generally not in Ntamack’s game, and like Dupont, Ntamack brings more calmness and control over France’s structures on both sides of the ball and is also a better defender than Jalibert.

While France are well-stocked in the back-row, Anthony Jelonch’s absence is another that has negatively impacted the side. His ability with ball in hand, work-rate, versatility and lineout expertise has been sorely missed despite the excellent performances of Gregory Alldritt, Charles Ollivon and Francois Cros. Paul Boudehent and Alexandre Roumat are no slouches, but there is a drop-off in quality from Jelonch. Let’s also not forget that Dylan Cretin is another back-rower sidelined.

Fatigue settling in

Another aspect worth noting is the lack of rest many of the frontline starters received following the World Cup. It comes as no surprise that Alldritt has been one of the top performers for the side over the past two matches – although he will miss the third – after La Rochelle granted him an extended rest period after the World Cup.

The powerhouse number eight was sublime for La Rochelle before the Six Nations and was replicating that form during the Championship. However, his fellow teammates were not granted the same luxury, and it shows. Gael Fickou had a slow start to the Six Nations before hitting his usual highs in Round Two, but his centre partner Jonathan Danty has not been up to standard for a long while.

Many of the other players have also endured a large chunk of games before the Six Nations, including the likes of Jalibert, Thomas Ramos, Damian Penaud, and Uini Atonio.

New coaches settling in

As mentioned above, France lost the expertise of Labit, Ghezal and Ibanez after the World Cup, with the former pair both linking up with Stade Francais, while the latter has retained his title as general manager but has different responsibilities within the French rugby structures.

It’s no surprise that the two areas of the game where France have seemingly struggled the most were what Labit (attack and backs) and Ghezal (lineout and forwards) were in charge of.

In their place, Galthie has recruited Laurent Sempere (forwards) and Pattrick Arlettaz (backs). However, the pair have not been an instant hit, with France’s lineout performing below par, and the same is true for the side’s attack. There is certainly a case to be made for the duo to be given time to embed their changes and for the players to adjust, but the reality is that France has got poorer in these areas. Two weeks of training for a seemingly easier fixture against Italy could do them the world of good, but right now, France is struggling to replace the new Stade Francais coaches.

Is there another rift?

It’s happened repeatedly in French rugby when a rift has formed in the relationship between the coaches and players. Is history repeating itself?

It has been widely reported that Galthie demands a lot of his players and staff, with many suggesting that an international role suits him perfectly as he is not dealing with them on a day-to-day but rather in short stints.

Following France’s underwhelming results, many suggest a rift brewing between Gatlhie, his players and the staff. Only those in camp will genuinely know right now, while the rest is just speculation, but given the history of French rugby, it is certainly a possibility.

Former Toulon owner Mourad Boudjellal has claimed that ex-France Rugby president Bernard Laporte hired the likes of Labit, Ghezal and Ibanez not only because of their coaching attributes but also because they balanced Galthie out.

Boudjellal said that Laporte brought those coaches in to counter-balance the “weaknesses of Galthie’s character” and believes that the new coaches that were brought cannot say no to the head coach.

It is clearly a testing time for France, who could still lift themselves back to the highs enjoyed between 2020 and before the quarter-final in 2023, but the signs are there of a potential implosion, much like the ones we have seen time and time again.

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