State of the Nation: Unbeaten France well-placed to push for home Rugby World Cup glory

James While
France celebrate winning a penalty against the Wallabies in the Autumn Nations Series.

Now that the 2022 international season has been wrapped up, we delve into the state of affairs in each of the competing nations. Next up, France.

An unbeaten 2022 speaks for itself, and France are on top of world rugby form wise despite not actually being on top of the global rankings.

Performances

The unbeaten Autumn Nations Series campaign followed a Grand Slam earlier this year, followed by a tour of Japan. Best of all, France have done this with big names missing at times and smaller names throwing their hat in the selection ring, adding ominous depth to an already impressive squad. Sure, there were wobbles at times, but there’s nothing that prepares you for a big tournament like winning consistently, and France have achieved that.

The Australian match was one such wobble. The Wallabies are a very well-coached side but paper thin in terms of injury and unavailabilities, compounded by one of the smallest player resources in the sport. Yet, it needed an injection of brilliance from Matthieu Jalibert as a replacement and the finishing expertise of Damian Penaud in the last moments to grab a win.

The match saw lacklustre displays from the French starting midfield and some scrummaging concerns as Australia really rocked Les Bleus with an early and physical assault. Still, rugby isn’t always about winning every conflict – it’s about winning the battle at the end, and France’s fortitude will hold them in great stead for the knockout stages ahead of them next year.

The Springbok match was a titanic clash; a red card per side, France taking a 13-point lead, followed by South Africa flexing their mauling muscles to claw back to 27-22, before Jalibert again entered the fray to shred through South Africa’s primary defence, now down to 13 men, to send Sekou Macalou racing for the line. A penalty infringement and a driving maul later and France got home by the skin of their teeth.

With Japan disposed of in fine style 35-17, France signed off 2022 with 10 wins from 10, a perfect outcome from a season that perhaps lacked perfection of performance.

Players

Over the last 12 months, at one point or another, France have lost players of the calibre of Gabin Villiere, Cyril Baille, Melvyn Jaminet, Paul Willemse, Charles Ollivon and Francois Cros to long-term injuries while Virimi Vakatawa was forced to retire from the sport. These are all world-class performers – players that are consistently in the debates for those minded to pick notional World XVs, and in the case of Ollivon and Willemse, the real champions of power in their pack.

However, unavailability for some means opportunity for others. We all knew just how good Anthony Jelonch was – indeed, he skippered France to Australia in 2021 – but to see his development in the absence of the tireless Cros across all three positions of the back-row would have delighted the French management. The emergence of Macalou as a true all-position replacement option off the bench was nothing short of remarkable, especially given his assured performances on the left wing. Whilst Jonathan Danty carried on where Vakatawa left off to add another level of crushing power to the inside centre berth.

However, France’s biggest gain over the autumn was the emergence of Thomas Ramos at 15 in Jaminet’s place. Here is a man comfortable standing in as a playmaker at 10 or fielding bombs at the back. His long-range boot is lethal, and he has pace to burn in attack. Jaminet will still be there or thereabouts in the squad, but for now, the first-choice full-back question for France is asked and answered.

Questions

France still have a couple of questions that need to be thoroughly considered and answered. They’re not big structural issues but ones of preference and enhancement over real problems.

Firstly, at fly-half, Romain Ntamack acquitted himself well during the Six Nations. Still, thereafter, with Toulouse and France, he dropped off the form cliff – looking lacklustre, lacking match control and absolutely unable to direct France with the authority needed with such quality and quantity of possession. It might be argued that Antoine Dupont wasn’t at his mercurial best alongside him, but even in sluggish form, the scrum-half is still world-class.

When he got his opportunities (bearing in mind he missed the end of the 2021/22 season with an injury), Jalibert looked different gravy as a 10 – sharp, fast, intelligent and threatening. You could argue all day over who the better rugby player is without reaching a conclusion, but the question here is who is the better starting fly-half, and the answer to that is clearly Jalibert.

Secondly, we have the captaincy to consider. Dupont led the side to a Grand Slam and continued by occupation to skipper throughout the Autumn Nations Series. But there’s a growing belief in France that the leadership has added weight to his broad shoulders that has restricted his electric form.

Given that the scrum-half got the job as a result of Ollivon’s absence through an ACL injury, it’s highly likely that the big Basque will be reinstated. His form slowly moved up the gears in Japan as his confidence grew until he provided us with massive performances in the autumn in all three Test matches. Ollivon doesn’t quite get the plaudits of Gregory Alldritt or New Zealand’s Ardie Savea. Still, it’s the view of many sound judges that at his very best, there’s no finer player, flanker or leader in the world. Given that this current French side is a project he started alongside Fabien Galthie, Shaun Edwards and Raphael Ibanez, it’s almost certain he’ll take the side into 2023 as skipper.

Elsewhere, the only other query to be asked is again one of strength – Jelonch or Cros on the openside? It really depends if you want the power man or the workhorse; Cros’ work rate is spectacular, and at the breakdown, he is a relentless cloak of unseen work. Jelonch offers more in attack and also is the more powerful man in defence, but given Ollivon’s certainty on the blindside, Cros probably balances out the back-row skill set more evenly, whilst Jelonch will be a better impact man off the bench.

Looking forward

As France move into 2023, it’s no understatement to say anything other than becoming world champions next November in Paris will be regarded as a failure.

Have they peaked a year too early? Do they have the scrum power to overcome the best? Will the best version of France turn up? The answers to those questions are at large, but we believe they’re all replied to in France’s favour.

Eddie Jones once said that you need five world-class players and two all-time greats of the game to win a world cup. France currently have Penaud, Gael Fickou, Dupont, Baille, Willemse, Julien Marchand, Ollivon and Alldritt as eight undisputable world-class players, with Cameron Woki, Cros, Ntamack, Ramos and Jalibert not far behind. Alldritt, Dupont and Ollivon are all on the verge of being all-time French greats, if not the world, so by Jones’ measure, they’re well beyond the normal par.

With a world-class set-piece and pace to burn in every department, we are witnessing one of the finest sides to grace Test rugby for many years – up there with Australia in the late 1990s, England in the early 2000s and New Zealand in 2005. Are they one of the greatest? We will find out next year, and for all the game viewers, it will be a feast of entertainment and emotion watching one of the most passionate and talented sides in their drive for rugby immortality.

Labour under no misapprehension – greatness awaits for this incredible and entertaining side.

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