State of the Nation: France continue to make progress after positive Japan tour

Date published: July 24 2022 - James While

Now that the 2022 July internationals are wrapped up, we delve into the state of affairs in each of the northern hemisphere nations. Last up, it is France.

With a curtailed two-Test tour of Japan following a stellar Six Nations season that saw France lift the Grand Slam, Fabien Galthie viewed this trip as a chance to explore the depth of his squad and to try new combinations as Les Bleus’ season continued its excellence.

Some big names, especially the overworked of La Rochelle and Toulouse, were rested. Antoine Dupont, Gregory Alldritt, Francois Cros, Cyril Baille, Romain Ntamack and a host more chose to stay at home to wind down after one of the longest seasons in memory.

However, it also gave Galthie the chance to recall some long-term injured players such as Charles Ollivon, Matthieu Jalibert and Virimi Vakatawa, all absolutely proven Test players, and in the case of Ollivon and Jalibert, world-class performers when at their best.

France are in the envious position of competition for places across the board. In some areas, such as back-row and half-back, they have at least two world-class players competing for the positions but in others, such as lock and tighthead, the depth is less well developed and this tour allowed Les Bleus to explore the glittering talent at their disposal.

The challengers

At loosehead, Jean-Baptiste Gros showed his continued improvement, starting both Tests and demonstrating his incredible workrate and powerful scrummaging. In the backline, Damian Penaud reminded us he’s still the best right wing in the world crossing for a brace in the first test. However, at tighthead, Demba Bamba’s explosive work around the pitch is still not mirrored in the tight and France will be pleased at the development of young Clermont prop Sipili Falatea, adding another layer of depth to their stocks.

In the back-row, there’s little doubt that in the form of 2020/21, Ollivon is the best flanker in world rugby. The intellect and leadership of the man is the stuff of legend within the French camp and, whilst Dupont has been an excellent caretaker skipper, Ollivon isn’t known as ‘The Boss’ without good reason. He was once again magnificent in Japan and there’s no doubt he’ll lead France into the World Cup next year, with Dylan Cretin also likely to be alongside him in a squad role after an impressive tour.

France still have confusion at 10. For all Ntamack’s brilliance as a runner, his match control is somewhat flaky at times and he simply isn’t as good at getting a pack going forward as Bordeaux’s Jalibert, who impressed on his return from injury. With Baptiste Couilloud and Maxime Lucu also impressing at nine, France’s half-back stocks are in rude health and the return of Jalibert gives Galthie the option of structure over invention at ten.

On pitch

In terms of the on-pitch efforts, Japan rocked France at times, pushing them all the way in the first Test for 40 minutes going in at half time 13-13. However, the strength and fitness of the French proved decisive in the second period as Jalibert cut loose in swelteringly hot and humid conditions to create two magnificent tries, with Melvyn Jaminet adding 17 points off the tee.

A week later, Couilloud’s try 10 minutes from time turned a messy match back in France’s favour after Japan full-back Ryohei Yamanaka had crashed over for two first half tries in Tokyo for a 15-7 half-time lead.

People might look back at these games and point out that France should have put away the Brave Blossoms a little easier than they did, but Japan at home are a serious prospect for any Test side now and France will be delighted to have been examined so properly by their hosts.

As the last leg of World Cup preparation begins, Galthie moves into this period knowing he has the exceptional riches in most positions, with set-piece and defensive system to be a foundation of his campaign. Bolt on Les Bleus’ mercurial ability to score tries and the next 12 months will see the coaches focusing on finding out their very best squad and fine tuning some starting positions such as fly-half.

It’s a solid B grade of a tour after an A+ season; the next challenge is to continue this form into a taxing November Test schedule followed by the huge challenge of a Six Nations that sees them play England and Ireland away from home. France are on the verge of greatness; the next 12 months will define just how great this side can become.

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