State of the Nation: France’s future still very bright despite finishing as Six Nations runners-up

James While
France State of the Nation image 2023.jpg

Now that the 2022 Six Nations is wrapped up, we continue to delve into the state of affairs in each of the competing nations. Next up, France.

Following an unbeaten 2022, this year’s Six Nations was always going to be a little bit of an uphill task even for a side as talented as France, especially given they had three matches on the road this season.

Nevertheless, despite a stodgy start in Rome where Italy produced a masterclass of attacking rugby, only Ireland in Dublin proved a bridge too far for Les Bleus as their winning run came to an end, well beaten 32-19. A win versus Scotland followed, before France ramped their performances up, peaking with a 53-10 demolition of England and a 41-28 thrashing of Wales.

For Fabien Galthie and his coaches, they were in the unenvious position of tweaking and honing selection, fine tuning strategy and generally refining a four year plan to secure a first World Cup on home soil.

They also struggled with injuries to key men – Jonathan Danty, Cameron Woki, Anthony Jelonch and Gabin Villiere were all absent for large parts of the competition, but in a squad as competitive as France’s, that merely allowed Galthie the luxury of exploring their support players and learning the best combinations before the RWC campaign starts in earnest.

One door closes

France started the tournament looking lateral and ponderous, two qualities not normally associated with their flowing style of rugby, but by the end, their ruck was back to lightning speed and their attack was once again direct and effective.

During the last 18 months, their fearsome back-row stocks had never been completely available together. Jelonch, Charles Ollivon, Gregory Alldritt and François Cros, supported by Woki and Sekou Macalou, always seemed to be carrying an injury of one sort or another, and in the case of three players, ACL injuries created some long term absences.

Last year, Ollivon missed the Six Nations, but Jelonch dropped into his place as a like-for-like carrying flank. As soon as Ollivon started his comeback, so Cros suffered precisely the same injury, and with remarkable symmetry, upon Cros’ return, so, rather sadly, Jelonch stuffed his ACL versus Scotland probably ruling him out of the World Cup.

However, when France were forced to field their big carrying back-row with Ollivon and Jelonch either side of Alldritt last year in the Autumn Nations and at the start of the Six Nations the breakdown issues started to creep in. It was only upon the return of the ruck master Cros that speedy ball suddenly started to flow. He rebalances the whole of that French trio and offers an industrial no-nonsense counterpoint to the power games of the others; his focus is ball winning and his inclusion is absolutely key to feed the hunger of the brilliant French backs.

Cros’ performances in France’s last three matches were at world class levels, scoring 8,9 and 8 in the Planet Rugby player ratings in those games and as he shifted the unseen work, so Ollivon and Alldritt returned to their world class best.

Danty’s Inferno

Alongside Cros, the return of breeze-block centre Jonathan Danty also turned France’s backline around. Direct, powerful and fast, he’s regarded as Les Blues’ fourth back-rower by the team and he created the go-forward and platform for the outside backs to strut their stuff, offering a presence that creates time for those around him.

A couple of other key examples spring to mind in terms of squad exploration; Woki seemed to have nailed down the front lock shirt after some fantastic lineout displays in 2022 – but this year, Thibaud Flamant went from gangling lock to world class athlete, finishing in just about everyone’s team of the tournament and adding try-scoring abrasion to the engine room.

And on the wing, when Villiere broke down and France appeared to need another wing, they simply cloned the brilliant Damian Penaud and created the magnificent Ethan Dumortier, almost a carbon copy in style and threat.

The other big change was the introduction of the outstanding Thomas Ramos at full-back. His understanding, forged at Toulouse, with Romain Ntamack and Antoine Dupont, is priceless for France. Often standing in at fly-half, the interplay with his team-mates allows variety of attacking point and extra receiver options in the 12/13 slots as Ntamack sweeps around on the loop. With a fantastic kicking game, Ramos has seen off another superb 15 in Melvyn Jaminet and once again, France have improved an already very competitive position.

Jouer, jouer

Selectorially, France walk away from the 2023 Six Nations defeated, but with enhanced knowledge of their form players and team balance – and at this point in time, Galthie couldn’t have asked for anything more.

With balanced selection and speed of ruck ball, France’s Toulouse half-backs also returned to their very best. Ntamack was under pressure from Matthieu Jalibert for his place for part of the competition, but as his pack started to click, so did the young fly-half alongside the mercurial Dupont, as Ntamack started to run matches in a way he’d not managed to do for quite some time in the blue shirt. The culmination of their improvement and game management came at Twickenham in a tryfest romp that will go down in the memories of all who saw it as a definitive performance, one that underlined France’s ability to cut loose and to launch their heavy artillery.

In terms of learning, France’s stodgy start showed some shortcomings in the balance of their selection but the fact that that was highlighted in the opening part of their campaign gave them the opportunity of exploring options and fixing the problem in the latter matches in time to peak for the World Cup.

Whilst Ireland are still ranked number one, the reality is that France are the red hot favourites for the World Cup and that’s based upon both home advantage and the perception that Les Bleus just have that bit more in terms of firepower and X-factor players.

When looking back over their campaign, France won’t be concerned with how they started; moreover they’ll be delighted in how they responded to that sluggish beginning. They’ve managed to augment their ridiculous amount of selectorial depth and they know that the only long-term casualty of that exercise is Jelonch.

They’ll go into the tournament not only with a wonderfully balanced and powerful starting XV, but with the likes of Woki, Macalou, Jaminet, Villiere, Maxime Lucu and Jalibert available off the bench, the impact they can use as finishers is almost more scary than the actual starters themselves.

With a fanatical fan base, home advantage and a team packed with rock stars, France are, for good reason, the hottest RWC favourites since England in 2003. Only silverware will suffice for this outstanding team and their country expects nothing less.

READ MORE: State of the Nation: Scotland exceed expectations but further development is needed to make a mark at the World Cup