The French rugby revival

The French rugby revival

Fourth in the Six Nations Championship with a rather mediocre finish for 2019, any Les Bleus fan hoping that France could reproduce their results of 2010, when they won the grand slam, or of 2011, when they went all the way to the finals, would be disappointed.

This French team of 2019 was far from that. This was not a French team that contended to be the best in the world. This was a mid-pack team with no cylinders ever truly firing.

Then the first game of the 2020 series stunned us. France completely decimated England 24-17. They went on to beat Italy and Wales before finally losing to Scotland unexpectedly.

In 2020 Fabien Galthie took over and made certain changes in the gameplay.

So what has changed with the French team?

France has always been a team full of young players, rising stars. Some of these players were real quality but were not always able to perform at their best. What Galthie has done is taken these stars and moulded them another way, utilising them completely and letting them develop.

France's flanker Charles Ollivon (C) and teammates celebrate their win in the Six Nations international rugby union match

A brilliant halfback pair If I were to say one thing, 2020 is the year that Antoine Dupont fired onto the international stage as one of the world’s best. For a long time he had been a pretty good scrumhalf with strong defence, but 2020 is when his gifts have been actually realised. He has shone in the first game against England. In that match France scored three tries – one came directly off Romain Ntamack and two had Dupont’s fingerprints on them.

Firstly, he took a box kick, short but hanging the ball in orbit. Vincent Rattez chased along with Charles Ollivon. With a first collision between Ollivon and Courtney Lawes, the ball popped into the open winger’s hands. He went through the line, making a good accounting of himself with the pace. The winger who had come off the box-kick now passed it back to his captain for a beautiful try.

The other try came through the hands of Dupont, who had used pace and agility to break the line before a pass back to Ollivon.

Their opening try of the match was Ntamack’s responsibility. Close to the line, Ntamack took a diagonal line, opening up the defence, before putting the ball onto Rattez with a no-look inside pass for a sublime score.

Against Italy we had the opening try coming through Ntamack. He saw the space behind and chipped the ball with his foot, siding the ball for Teddy Thomas’s try.

The second try came through Antoine Dupont’s playmaking. Off the ruck he plays one phase, taking the ball back from the forward carrier, before firing the ball over the heads of the Azzurri and his teammates right into the hands of Gregory Alldritt. The No. 8 took the try with joy.

The third try came through Dupont firing the ball deep onto Teddy Thomas, who then fired it deeper into the hands of Romain Ntamack, who spotted the gap and bolted through to the line. The purpose of passing deep was to cause the Azzuri to shoot up, giving Ntamack the space to break the line.

Against Wales we had a man-of-the-match performance from Romain Ntamack. His hand was instrumental in the opening try. A good out-of-hand kick towards the far end of the pitch with Teddy Thomas, France’s fastest player, to chase. Thomas forced a fumble from Leigh Halfpenny, the ball bounced in the favour of Anthony Bouthier to grab it up and score.

Then we had this disqualified try play here for France. With a linebreak from Bouthier and an offload back to Virimi Vakatawa, the ball bounced through the hands like a hot potato before finding Ntamack open out. Ntamack found the Welsh defence short out wide, putting in a kick into the arms of the wide-out Gael Fickou, who waltzed past two defenders to cross the whitewash. Sadly the try play was later ruled out due to a forward pass from Bouthier to Vakatawa.

Ntamack’s try of the match came when Welsh playmaker Dan Biggar made two distributing passes to find men in space, hitting the French defence hard. Then, on the last distributing pass it caught Ntamack out wide on the two-on-one between him and the Welsh. He read the play, seeing Nick Tompkins’s intention for a draw pass. He hit the ball as it went from the hands of Tompkins, gaining full control of it after the initial tap and sprinting to the line to score.

A world-class midfield Gael Fickou has been the kind of man France would occasionally fire the ball back to for him to smash it high into the air. He has been taking up several midfield out-of-hand kicks. Also, his agility and pace are among the best in the world, and this has resulted in the positional switch to the wing against Wales.

He has been brilliant in the Six Nations Championship, with a strong showing in almost every match. He plays the role of a semi-decision-maker, sometimes firing out and sometimes taking the ball to the line by himself.

Virimi Vakatawa has long been known for his tackling and industrial fitness. Being a sevens player, he is extremely quick and is also a big man. His tackling has been extremely powerful, as always.

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Captain Fantastic A strong tackler and brilliant jackler, Charles Ollivon leads by example. Good carrying drive and decent speed make him an equal threat in attack.

A No. 8 who has finally peaked Gregory Alldritt has been barnstorming. Perhaps he is the new Louis Picamoles. He has been excellent at the breakdown, especially in that man-of-the-match performance against England in the opener. His power drive is also a key part to his attack.

A solid back three Anthony Bouthier replaces Maxime Medard at No. 15, proving himself to be a solid attacker with pace and handling. He was a surprise fo this year’s Six Nations, and he has more than made up for the Wolverine’s absence. On one wing we have the speedster Teddy Thomas, who has not been the biggest try-scorer, play well and contribute to some tries with his pace and handling. Meanwhile, Vincent Rattez has proved to be a good replacement for Yoann Huget.

Offloading and fast-flowing game One thing that we can see from France this season is there ability to keep the ball flowing. When they get tackled, the ball continues to get offloaded. This was especially effective against Italy, and the disqualified try against Wales was a perfect example.

They play the ball quickly, to ensure defenders cannot drift out and cover space or reorganise.

Baptiste Serin’s try against Italy epitomised this. A breakdown penalty with the Azzuri retreating saw Serin waste no time to do a quick tap, sprinting and waltzing through the defence all the way to the whitewash.

Two key playmakers Most of the play crashes off Dupont, which makes the No. 9 a centre of distribution. Meanwhile, bringing in Ntamack during the big plays creates tries. With both of them the French attack is extremely deadly.

Scottish setback Indiscipline cost them the game. Mohamed Haouas was red-carded after throwing an idiotic punch, and the 14-man France slumped to defeat. The other players had their usual performances, including most of the forwards, but neither Ntamack nor Dupont fired in that game. Dupont had one flash of brilliance in the first try but had a mediocre game both in attack and his usually outstanding defence. Ntamack went off the pitch early and did not account well for himself.

This is a stronger team than last year. In 2019 they were a ragtag bunch of raw talents. This year Galthie the craftsman has cut the team into a diamond. They will bounce back from the defeat to Scotland and perhaps this year may be in contention for the world’s best.