State of the Nation: Hosts France fail to deliver maiden World Cup title

James While
France head coach Fabien Galthie, captain Antoine Dupont, flanker Charles Ollivon and winger Damian Penaud.

France head coach Fabien Galthie, captain Antoine Dupont, flanker Charles Ollivon and winger Damian Penaud.

Now that the dust has settled on another memorable Rugby World Cup, we bring you our State of the Nations pieces. Next, it’s Fabien Galthie’s France. 

After three seasons of consistent brilliance, the host nation’s hopes were high for an inaugural World Cup win at home. However, France blew their golden chance, crashing out in the quarter-finals by a point to eventual champions, South Africa.

Was it just reward for a poor performance or did France simply take too many things for granted?

Tournament summary

One point. That’s all it was as France attacked the Springboks with brilliance and precision, but on the other side of the ball simply forgot to defend as their iron defence buckled under the pressure of the occasion.

The post mortems are still ringing loud in the corridors of French rugby administration. How could this possibly happen? What went wrong? Who is to blame?

With Antoine Dupont rushed back into action, playing on painkillers and with a steel plate in his cheek, the importance of their campaign was obvious. This was win at all costs. Sadly, that type of desperation in thinking often leads to flawed strategy, and for once, Galthie’s selections let him down.

He chose to pick young attacking tyro Louis Bielle-Biarry on the left wing over the considerable defensive skills of the proven Gabin Villiere. It proved to be a disaster as the three-quarter simply failed to deal with the barrage of spiral bombs that rained down on him from all quarters. A rabbit in the headlights, he gave South Africa a channel to exploit, and his failure to cope with the onslaught proved to be crucial.

In the back-row, Anthony Jelonch, Dupont’s schoolyard bestie and a powerful carrying flank, was shoehorned in at the expense of France’s best defender, the brilliant Francois Cros. The thinking was to take it to the Boks, but sadly, there was nobody doing the graft work in D when South Africa took it back to France. The Cameron Woki restart catch that led to a South Africa try was a case in point – where was the man controlling the drop zone?

That’s meat and drink to Cros, and inexplicably, France left their best defender to deliver a role he’s least suited to – that of impact sub. In short, France’s frenetic focus on attack was so sharp that their duties on the other side of the ball were left at the back of their mind. History has proven that the Rugby World Cup is won by defence, and coupled with the difference in power off the bench, it was this that let this generational French side down.

But it had started so well. A brilliant display of focus in the 35-degree heat of Stade de France had seen them smash the All Blacks in the opening game as Gregory Alldritt and his brilliant back-row took New Zealand to the cleaners at the breakdown. A wobble versus Uruguay might have sown question marks in Galthie’s mind about starting a match without Dupont, but disaster struck in the rout against Namibia when Dupont’s cheekbone was shattered in a head-high tackle.

With Italy disposed of in style by 60 points and a fallow week ahead, the great scrum-half was rushed back into action, possibly before he was ready to start. It was muddled thinking, but those muddles are what caused France to crash out of this tournament.

There’s remarkable symmetry with this French side and England in the 1999 World Cup. They promised so much but failed far too early. With their stars likely to be around into 2027 in Australia, there’s a school of thought that suggests that that might very well be their year, as this amazing group of players has one last shot at the biggest prize in the game.

Standout players

Charles Ollivon was the man that kept France together during Dupont’s absence, and his personal performances throughout the tournament were absolutely peerless, whether running in tries from 50m or stealing ball after ball in the lineout. He also treated us to one of the dummies of the tournament as he ran in from distance to score against Namibia.

Given question marks over the French leadership during the tournament, there are rumours the big Basque might be reinstated as France’s skipper for the 2024 Six Nations, and he remains an absolutely world-class flanker.

Up front, Peato Mauvaka was parachuted into the starting hooking berth after only 28 minutes of the tournament and delivered on every stage he walked, particularly against the Springboks, where his try-scoring antics almost took his side home. He made virtually every team of the tournament and was a threat on both sides of the ball, taking his stock to new heights.

In the backline, Damian Penaud was electric, running hither and thither from all angles and places on the pitch. Maybe, at times, he was too frenetic, but there’s no doubt he’s a world-class exponent of his art, and there’s a lot more yet to come.

Honourable Mentions: A word for Cyril Baille as it looked for all money that he would miss the tournament yet returned slightly short of match fitness to deliver a barnstorming display in the quarter-final. Had he and Uini Atonio had just that little more gas in the tank, then France’s replacement front-row might not have been as exposed in the last period of that fateful quarter-final.

Statistic leaders

Thomas Ramos nailed 21 conversions to lead the tournament stats and finished one point behind Owen Farrell overall with 74. Penaud’s 13 clean breaks were the most in the tournament, and he finished second in the overall try list with six.

Elsewhere, the tireless Alldritt was France’s top carrier with 47, whilst Ollivon’s eight lineout steals saw him second only to the brilliant Courtney Lawes on nine.

Success story

It’s hard to think of many success stories in a tournament so eagerly anticipated by the French public but one that fell so far short of expectation. It was rather like preparing to dine out the finest French food imaginable, only to watch the waiter trip up and drop the lot on the restaurant floor.

Sure, Penaud proved that he will be one of France’s all-time greats as he threatened everyone he played against, but the team’s biggest success was the off-field medical miracle that saw Dupont return far quicker than expected. Sadly, it may well be that he returned too quickly for his own team’s benefit.

Main regret

As France led Namibia by 53 points at half-time, Planet Rugby podcaster and columnist Sergio Parisse stood in the ITV Studios and extorted the French management to get Dupont off at half-time to safeguard their most prized asset. Six minutes later, Dupont did leave the pitch but not on his own terms, as his cheekbone was shattered, and his World Cup was in pieces. It was a remarkable piece of arrogance to needlessly leave him on from the French management, one that rocked the clarity of their own thinking moving forward, a theme that continued with the flawed selections and tactical naivety of the quarter-final team.


France v New Zealand (won 27-13)
France v Uruguay (won 27-12)
France v Namibia (won 96-0)
France v Italy (won 60-7)
France v South Africa (lost 28-29)

READ MORE: State of the Nation: Can Ireland rebuild after more Rugby World Cup misery?