Following a 27-12 victory for France over Uruguay in the Rugby World Cup Pool A match on Thursday, here’s our five takeaways from the game in Lille.
The top line
This was billed as the tournament of the underdogs with great things expected from the Pacific Islanders and other Tier Two nations, but one thing that wasn’t on the agenda was Uruguay pushing one of the tournament favourites, France, all the way to the line as they did in a thrilling display of brilliant defence, committed breakdown work and high quality work in attack.
Fabien Galthie might be pleased to have gotten a display as poor as this out of the French system but whilst his attack coach Laurent Labit will be concerned at the lack of structure, handling skill and continuity shown by Les Bleus, his defence coach Shaun Edwards will be incandescent with the shambles of defence and gainline work displayed by his charges.
This was Uruguay’s best ever performance against a Tier One side (they have beaten Fiji in the Rugby World Cup before) and they can take a lot of positives from this game – knowing they can break down the best defensive systems and that they can shut out one of the world’s most potent attacks.
Whilst France have got out of jail and move forward unbeaten, Uruguay will be relishing their fixture against Italy and can be mighty proud of their showing in Lille.
Uruguay couldn’t have got off to a better start. Some wonderful carrying work in midfield, notably by the outstanding Manual Diana, saw centre Andres Vilaseca smash into the French defensive heart, to allow the brilliant fly-half Felipe Etcheverry go cross-field to see wing Nicolas Freitas scoot over and dot down for a shock score.
With Diana putting in a tremendous shift all night with ball in hand, the Uruguay loose trio has been a feature of their road to Rugby World Cup 2023 and on tonight’s evidence it’s clear to see why.
Vilaseca was a tower all evening, leading a magnificent and abrasive defensive system that France really struggles to break down. They were direct and organised, using an old school 14-1 system to keep width in midfield, and it was a mark of France’s lack of leadership and rugby intellect that at no point did they try to chip or grubber through to break down a much wider defensive system than is usually seen at Test level.
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It seems remarkable but it’s arguable that Uruguay got the better of France in terms of breakdown accuracy and ruck work, especially in the first half. Their back-row of Diana, Santiago Civetta, and especially Manuel Ardao on the blindside flank showed great precision and technique, driving France off the ball on several occasions, much to the embarrassment of the tournament hosts.
Their rolling maul impressed too, especially in the 10 minutes Romain Taofifenua was off the field for head contact. A short lineout after some tremendous pressure down the left flank saw the Uruguayans take France on in the rolling maul and as the maul stopped so Santiago Arata combined brilliantly with his pack to send Etcheverry scooting over – but alas for the visitors, outside centre Tomas Inciarte was penalised for a block run on France’s corner defender Arthur Vincent, and a brilliantly worked try was chalked off on a technicality.
Not so great was the Uruguayan set-piece – their scrum really struggled for the most part to stay up and legal, whilst their lineout suffered from a few squint throws, but all in all, they can be mighty proud of their basics, especially that work at ruck time.
Taofifenua aside, the French back five in the pack is more rockstar than rock breakers. To a man they’re brilliant handling athletes but without a ruck specialist in the shape of a Ollivon or an Alldritt (or Francois Cros starting), that man that is precise and direct in clearing, slowing and jackalling, they looked a little lacking in sheer presence at the breakdown. Sure Sekou Macalou had his moments of stealing and carrying but he is a rugby maverick and a player that simply doesn’t want to be shackled by the graft and grind of ruck and breakdown work.
Cros came on for 30 minutes to skipper the side and try and make sense of the mess but not even his legendary breakdown and clearing accuracy made much difference. Add into the mix Pierre Bougarit is also more at home running in wide channels and you can see why Uruguay caused Les Bleus so many issues in contact.
Only scrum dominance – on an appalling surface that England should take note of – and a solid lineout kept France in the match. The returning Anthony Jelonch and Vincent looked short of match sharpness although the French management will be delighted they got through the game unscathed.
— Rugby World Cup (@rugbyworldcup) September 14, 2023
France learned a lot tonight – but most of it negative. They learned that their first team is way ahead of the second string players and that without the rugby intellect of the key tactical voices such as Gael Fickou, Ollivon and Alldritt, that they really lacked leadership.
They’ll be concerned about ball retention and precision at ruck time – echoing the points made above – and other than Peato Mauvaka who made a massive impact off the bench, nipping over for a crucial try, and Macalou, who did the flash stuff well despite his lack of grunt, there were few French players who shone.
They look short of one quality fetcher in their back-row stocks, they might rue leaving the brilliant talents of Baptiste Serin back at Toulon, and, had Taofifenua’s card been a different shade (which may well have happened) their lack of power in the lock department is another concern.
For Uruguay, this was their moment in the sun. They know they’ve an amazing back-row and midfield defence and they’ve proven they can get around one of the best defences in the world. Their message will be to build upon this and back it up with another performance against Italy in a week’s time.