State of the Nation: France

Date published: March 28 2016

As we do at the end of a major tournament, we look at the state of affairs in each of the competing nations. Next up, France.

Guy Novès was going to be the man to change France’s fortunes after four years in the wilderness, but as the former Toulouse boss had warned, French problems run deeper than simply the man picking the team.

While it’s easy to point to superficial questions like whether Damien Chouly is an international number eight or if François Trinh-Duc should be kicking for goal when he isn’t kicking at club level – those debates only serve to obscure the more serious problems.

France finished fifth despite opening the tournament with two wins, and have now gone five years without a top half finish.

Novès started this Six Nations hoping to put his faith in youth, handing debuts to the likes of Jonathan Danty, Sébastien Bézy, Paul Jedrasiak and Virimi Vakatawa against Italy.

The problem is that of those four starters in the opener, the youngest was 23. This was a decision to put faith in youth, but not too young.

It’s true that 20-year-old Camille Chat and 21-year-old Yacouba Camara also got their first caps during the Championship, but there is currently a fallow period for young players after the U20s.

Wales might have won the Grand Slam at age group level, but France were the other outstanding team at that level. The players in that team – and Judicaël Cancoriet, Damian Penaud and Gabriel Ngandebe are just three to watch out for – are ready for top flight rugby.

Only the former is playing any rugby, and too often players are having to wait until they reach the age of 22 to even be tested at Top 14 level.

Novès came under fire for picking too many players from a struggling Stade Français team, but as one of the few clubs to regularly put their faith in youth, it’s as much by necessity as it is choice.

A few more will come to the fore in the June when France travel to Argentina for two probable thrashings without the Top 14 semi-finalists (and barragistes for the first Test). Expect the likes of Sekou Macalou – another former U20s star – to get a chance to shine, while La Rochelle, Castres and even Pro D2 might provide a number of players in a nonsensical tour.

Focusing more specifically on the Six Nations, there was a clear sign of intent from les Bleus to impose a real game plan. Gone is Philippe Saint-André’s reliance on brute force, and in came a desire to offload and keep the ball alive.

It was taken to extremes at times, and it’s fair to question whether France overdid it given they offloaded more than every other team in the Championship yet finished as the least prolific attack with just seven tries.

Having said that, after four years of Top 14 rugby and trying to bludgeon opponents to death, it’s refreshing to see an attempt to move to a more expansive game.

On a personnel level, the same issues remain, with no obvious solution at fly-half – Trinh-Duc is the staff’s number one but can’t stay fit, Plisson defensively is still a real concern.

The injury crisis on the wing did not help, although Vakatawa was a real find. He has come under fire for his display against England, and he was certainly a little raw, but Jack Nowell will be having nightmares about trying to stop the Sevens star. Give him a year of XVs rather than three weeks and he might be the most dangerous weapon on show.

By the end of the Championship France also had one of the most reliable goal-kickers in the tournament, Maxime Machenaud nailing them from everywhere, while also pulling the strings at nine.

More concerning is the lack of carrying power in the pack. Once Louis Picamoles went down, it seemed to be left to Guilhem Guirado to do it all. The new skipper did his best and was good enough to be a near universal selection in teams of the tournament but he needs more support.

There was a pleasant surprise with the performances of Jefferson Poirot, thrown in at the deep end when Eddy Ben Arous was injured, while Chat made an impact every time he came on.

However an unbalanced back row, a scrum that wasn’t always rock solid, and a lack of ball-carriers cost France dear.

With more time – and that won’t happen in Argentina – France have the building blocks in place to at least challenge Europe’s best.

Realistically though, they need a more radical overhaul of the domestic set-up so that the next generation of French stars are ready to turn out for les Bleus at a much earlier age.

by Paul Eddison