State of the Nation: France were the ‘very worst cliché of’ themselves as defensive and emotional frailties cost them dearly

James While
France players v Ireland Six Nations 2024 - Alamy.jpg

France players form a huddle during their Six Nations clash with Ireland in Marseille.

Now that the dust has settled on another memorable Six Nations Championship, we bring you our State of the Nations pieces, next up Fabien Galthie’s France.

Judging France’s progress against their potential would suggest that they’ve underachieved in the Six Nations despite a second-place finish. At times, they appeared to want to define the very worst cliché of their own rugby, leaving you wondering not which France will turn up but whether or not they’d bother turning up at all.

Nevertheless, as their post-World Cup hangover subsided, they grew into the tournament, albeit somewhat belatedly, capping off a campaign of enforced selectorial exploration with one of the greatest matches in Six Nations history as a rocking Lyon hosted Les Bleus‘ memorable win 33-31 versus England to leave them one point above their oldest enemy as 2024 runners up.

Tournament summary

Played five, won three, lost one and drew one – the results themselves underline the complete inconsistency of Les Bleus, and for the second season in a row, they struggled greatly with the structure and pace of Ireland and the sheer commitment and backline intelligence of Italy, who came within a coat of paint of beating France in Lille.

Themes emerged. There’s no doubt that Galthie’s men had the firepower to score tries, but they lacked control at half-back until Nolann Le Garrec got his start against Wales, and concerns emerged about the leakiness of the Shaun Edwards-engineered defence, with particular focus on the work of the French midfield, where no less than seven absolute howlers cost Le Bleus 45 points over the course of the tournament.

If you were English, you might describe the campaign as a Curate’s Egg, but the French would say “ on pourrait dire qu’elle contient certaines bonnes choses, qu’elle est mi-figue, mi-raisin.”

Slow to get into gear, ponderous and vulnerable in the first three rounds, only a couple of controversial moments against both Scotland and Italy prevented two potentially disastrous results; France struggled greatly with injury and unavailability, whether that be self-enforced or, in Jonathan Danty’s case, for disciplinary reasons.

The impact of the Antoine Dupont sabbatical to Olympic Sevens duty was always going to hurt them hard, but with key players injured during the tournament and others suspended, France were able to explore their own depth, using 33 players in the campaign and capping Posolo Tuilagi, Leo Barre, Emmanuel Meafou, Alexandre Roumat, George-Henri Colombe, Esteban Abadie, Nicolas Depoortere and, crucially, Nolann le Garrec, for the first time.

Ireland seemed to cause all sorts of issues for France in terms of gain-line domination and preventing any sort of quick ruck ball, something that Les Bleus crave. With the outstanding Jamison Gibson Park destroying the axis of Alldritt, Lucu and Jalibert, France were never close to beating the Northern Hemisphere’s number one side, causing ripples of concern over the channel in how France struggled against the very best, a devastating humbling at home in Marseilles.

The Scottish fans were incandescent with rage over a disallowed try that might have seen them take a famous win up at Murrayfield as the last few minutes descended into farcical drama. For the neutral, justice appeared to be done as in the lead-up to that fateful moment, a Scottish knock-on and two clear offsides went unpunished. But even this edgy contest fell into insignificance against Italy when a promising first-half performance fell into disarray against a brilliant Azzurri second half that should have resulted in a loss but for a fluffed penalty at the end by Paolo Garbisi.

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Matthieu Jalibert suffered a calf strain during the Italian fixture and with Maxime Lucu completely out of sorts, France dispensed with the Bordeaux axis, and we saw the introduction of Le Garrec, a man that managed to get his team back to the level that was expected of them as he delivered two outstanding personal performances in the wins versus Wales and England.

That game in Lyon; what an encounter. But again, those defensive frailties we alluded to kept England in the game as much as any of the visiting players. A lot of it was down to the need to hide Thomas Ramos when he played at ten, exacerbated by miscommunication in a new centre combination as Depoortere and Gael Fickou made some absolutely howling errors. With Ramos often fitting in at 13 to defend primary attacks, the spacing and the structure completely fell apart, firstly in Cardiff, where Rio Dyer and Tomos Williams exploited the frailties and then again in Lyon, where Ollie Lawrence, Ben Earl and Tommy Freeman picked apart the Fickou led line on several occasions.

It’s accurate to say as the team matured together, so the performances came; perhaps, at times, they lacked the control you’d want to see – even the Wales victory was a little too helter-skelter for some people’s taste. But to return to cliches of themselves, France entered the tournament like a young wine too immature to satisfy but ended up with a promising blend of vintage complexity by the end of the tournament. However, it was exactly that – promising over tangible- and France have a lot of fixing to do as they move into their summer tour to Argentina.

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Standout players

He might be the quietest and the least vaunted member of the French powerhouse backrowers, but Francois Cros simply kept France competitive in the first half of the tournament and then put in two absolutely brilliant performances in Cardiff and Lyon, adding some real attacking bite to his undoubted craftsmanship in defence and breakdown work. He’ll rue the missed tackle on Rio Dyer, but other than that one blemish, the Toulouse man stood head and shoulders above any other French player and rightly made virtually everyone’s Team of the Tournament, including those of both Planet Rugby and the Six Nations itself.

Damian Penaud might have only crossed once himself, a poor return by his exalted standards, but with three try assists and 316 metres carried he was second only to Ireland’s fantastic James Lowe in terms of impact with ball in hand. The huge Bordeaux wing is a world-class operator, and he continued to shine in every aspect of his play.

When Dupont declared himself unavailable, much was expected of Maxime Lucu, but the Bordeaux man’s chance coincided with some of the worst form we’ve seen from him in a long time. Enter Le Garrec, a man often compared to the great Dupont, who transformed Les Bleus’ speed of thought and tactical delivery at the base. He might not quite be the great man himself, but he’s a pretty close facsimile, and his smarts at nine were one of the reasons France turned their season around after the Italian shock.

Statistic leaders

France full-back Thomas Ramos kicking.

France full-back Thomas Ramos kicking.

Thomas Ramos topped the table in terms of overall points for the 2024 Six Nations with 63 overall and 13 penalty kicks.

But Damian Penuad’s work with ball in hand saw him top the offload and linebreak stats in addition to his metres carried and gained, demonstrating his effectiveness and ability to create opportunities for those around him with three try assists over the course of the season.

And lastly, Cros and his defensive work; aside from being France’s top tackler, 124 ruck arrivals in attack saw him finish fifth but in terms of dominant clear outs, once again, he topped the stats with a mighty 36, in addition to being France’s most consistent lineout performer, second in most catches, joint first in steals, but only losing one on his own ball all season.

Success story

There’s no doubt that 2024 was about the French attack over and above the French defence; in fact, that was almost personified by Gael Fickou himself, who snared three tries but let in as many more as he ran brilliantly but defended like a pale imitation of the giant we’ve seen in recent times.

When Le Garrec and Leo Barre were introduced to the team as starters, we saw Les Bleus at their best, showing an amazing ability to get the ball into the wide channels and around the edge of defences at the speed of light. That wonderful Toulouse-inspired move where France attack width, handle in the chaos of the narrow channels then whip the ball back into a supporting midfield runner hurt Scotland, Wales and England, and it’s without question that in unstructured transition there are few better attacking sides in the world.

Main regret

A complete failure to turn up and start hot against Ireland took France some time to recover from. It was almost as if once their Grand Slam dreams were in tatters after the first 40 minutes of the 2024 Six Nations they regressed into a surly strop.

The magnitude of that defeat hurt them hard – but it was a combination of a failure to react to it early from all of a selectorial, structural and emotional perspective that saw the real dip in form over the first three rounds. Getting a team settled early, getting consistency in defence and getting some runs on the board was something that simply didn’t happen for Galthie and his men, and in short, their season can be summed up as one that caractérisé des émotions mitigées.


France v Ireland (Lost 17-38)
Scotland v France (Won 16-20)
France v Italy (Drew 13-13)
Wales v France (Won 24-45)
France v England (Won 33-31)

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