In the midst of the attention that Ireland and England have received in the media for toppling the Rugby Championship teams in recent weeks, the steady progress that France have made in the latter half of 2016 seems to have passed people by. That may have something to do with Les Bleus not getting any results over Australia or New Zealand in November, but they were both one-score games, and could turn out to be the start of an upswing in French fortunes.
The appointment of Guy Novès as head coach of France’s national team after RWC 2015 was seen as long overdue, if not a decade too late. After eight years of ineptitude and puke rugby from Marc Lièvremont and Philippe Saint-André, an icon of French club rugby was expected to remedy all of France’s woes instantly. Novès’ Toulouse were renowned for playing with flair in their heyday, and the coach himself spoke of a desire to get his team playing an attractive brand of the sport when he took the job on.
Novès’ first game as France’s head coach was at home against an Italian team who were under the care of the departing Jacques Brunel, and it wasn’t pretty. A series of uninspiring performances followed, with an 11-point loss to Scotland being a new low, and hard questions were being asked about the man at the helm. With Toulouse stagnating towards the end of his time in charge, and France producing the same miserable brand of rugby that characterised the darkest days of Saint-André’s reign for the majority of this year’s Six Nations, the general consensus was that Novès was past his sell-by date, and it would be another four years before France underwent a revolution. Indeed, the coach himself looked like he had one eye on the door.
After a bad start to his tenure, the summer tour of Argentina provided some optimism for Novès. France went into the first Test missing a host of starters due to the series clashing with the knock-out stages of the Top 14. Based on the form showed in the Six Nations, they should have been hammered out the gate by a Pumas side that had reached the Bronze Final of the World Cup the previous year; instead, they fronted up to the hosts and made it an even contest until a late try from Guido Petti Pagadizábal sealed a home win.
Yoann Maestri, Paul Jedrasiak, Rémi Lamerat and Maxime Médard were restored to the matchday squad for the second Test, and France won 27-0 in a display of forward grunt and verve in attack. The terrible conditions stymied Argentina’s offloading game, and the loss of Juan Martín Hernández left them bereft of direction out wide, but it’s hard to imagine that those two factors accounted for 27 points. Preventing a team who score a lot of tries from registering any points and beating a southern hemisphere side while playing away from home was enough to make people sit up and take notice of France, even if their November results weren’t.
Waking The Beast
It’s fair to say that France’s pack was nothing to be afraid of under Saint-André. The superiority they enjoyed at scrum-time for decades all but evaporated, and even Ireland, Wales and Scotland forced penalties out of them at different stages. The sight of Thomas Domingo being ground into the Stade de France dirt by Mike Ross in 2014 must have been galling for a nation who have long been considered strong scrummagers.
Many of the French forwards over the last few years haven’t had the same levels of brutishness, technical ability or skill as their predecessors. Novès discarded a number of them (Dimitri Szarzewski, Vincent Debaty, Nicolas Mas, Yannick Nyanga, Pascal Papé) after RWC 2015 and there has been a surge in the amount of effort the current French pack put in, not to mention the development of a hard edge. Jefferson Poirot’s scrummaging has come on in leaps and bounds since the Six Nations and even when Uini Atonio was at tighthead, France had a frightening level of dominance against Argentina:
Their maul, too, is a different animal, and they used it to dismantle the Pumas, who normally excel in this facet:
France’s defensive lineout has also become a weapon, with Yoann Maestri’s imposing frame being used at the front to disrupt the opposition throw. Agustín Creevy rarely has off days with his darts, yet the pressure from the French jumpers made it fall apart completely in Tucumán:
The French forwards have begun to exert themselves outside the set-pieces, a prime example being when they destroyed Argentina in the loose in the final quarter of the second June Test. Bullying a hard-nosed Pumas side in the tight phases is no mean feat, and France held their own against a New Zealand pack that have plenty of bite.
Yannick Bru can’t take credit for the change in attitude, as he has been France’s forwards coach since 2012. Novès himself is an ex-winger, so forward technical expertise isn’t his specialty, but the revival of France’s competitiveness up front and his introduction to the coaching ticket are not a coincidence.
Despite their strengths, there are areas of forward play where France are at a disadvantage. The current crop of French back rowers aren’t natural scavengers. None of Loann Goujon (6’4″), Damien Chouly (6’3½”), Louis Picamoles (6’3½”), Wenceslas Lauret (6’2″), Yacouba Camara (6’4½”), Antoine Burban (6’2″), Bernard Le Roux (6’5½”), Raphaël Lakafia (6’3″), Kevin Gourdon (6’3″), Kélian Galletier (6’2″), Charles Ollivon (6’6½”), are low to the ground, and when France played teams who did have out-and-out opensides in 2016 (Wales, Scotland, Argentina, New Zealand), they struggled on the deck, with Matt Todd giving them a headache in their final fixture of 2016.
France could do with a leaner second rower to solve the problems that they have had on their own throw. Sébastien Vahaamahina, Paul Jedrasiak, Julien Le Devedec are currently chosen to play alongside Maestri, but they are similar in size and build to the Toulouse lock. If they could find an agile, Courtney Lawes-type player to complement him, it would benefit them at tight and around the park. The trouble with this is that the Top 14 doesn’t produce this type of player, and Novès can’t make one appear out of thin air.
Traditional French Flair
True to his word, France have been playing with enterprise under Novès, and for the first time in a long time, they actually look coached. On top of their heightened aggression and improved cohesiveness at tight, the French forwards have been offloading regularly since the start of the June Series.
Passing out of contact has normally been improvised for France, but Novès has decided to implement a systematic approach, with the pattern of a forward taking the ball into contact with one or two support players running good lines right on his shoulder being a predominant feature of their carries:
In the first example above, Kevin Gourdon looks to his left before contact to make sure that the support players are in position, and then angles his body in their direction as the tackle is made in order to give himself the best chance of throwing an accurate pass, in what is clearly a ploy that has been drilled into the French forwards.
Much like in the pack, changes in personnel and philosophy have led to marked differences in France’s back line. More than one experienced player was dispensed with after the embarrassing quarter-final loss to New Zealand last year, the most noticeable being Morgan Parra. I’ve always felt that Parra never fulfilled his potential at Test level, a lot of which had to do with inconsistent selections from the previous French coaches. He was a starter for the entire 2010 Six Nations, spearheading an impressive Grand Slam effort, but this wasn’t deemed to be sufficient enough to keep his place, and he was in and out of the starting XV every other game after that in favour of Dimitri Yachvili, Sébastien Tillous-Borde, Frédéric Michalak et al., and never really got to put his stamp on the team.
In contrast, Vern Cotter and Franck Azéma placed full trust in him to be a leader in a Clermont squad packed with big names, and he has thrived as a leading scrum-half in European and domestic competition. If he had been given the same level of empowerment by his national coaches, he could very well have been one of the greatest 9’s of the professional era. As it stands, he played a bit part for his country during the last RWC cycle, and even though he’s only 28, the emergence of several alternatives (Maxime Machenaud, Jean-Marc Doussain, Sébastien Bézy, Baptiste Serin) looks to have ended any international ambitions he may still harbour.
Although Serin’s reverse flick pass for Louis Picamoles’ try against New Zealand has garnered praise, it’s his all-round game and confidence levels that stand out. His passing is consistently accurate (if a little high) and so is his kicking. The break down the right touch line for Hugo Bonneval’s try in Tucumán is another example of his ability to create moments of magic. He doesn’t shy away from the less glamorous aspects of scrum-half play, either, putting just as much effort into tackling around the fringes and sweeper defence. At 21 years of age, the Bordeaux Begles half-back has the potential to be a superstar. Novès gambled by selecting him at such a young age, but as the saying goes, “if you’re good enough, you’re old enough”.
A high-profile omission from the squads used by Novès’ so far has been Mathieu Bastareaud, which is important in the context of the game plan that the new coach wants to utilise. The Toulon midfielder was run off his feet by Ireland and New Zealand in RWC 2015, and for all the gushing from spectators over his size and strength in contact, his lack of a passing game severely limited France’s attacking options. Novès has opted for skilful, nimble centres like Jonathan Danty, Gaël Fickou, Rémi Lamerat and Julien Rey, and France’s back line movements have been more fluent as a result.
Out-half remains an issue, with François Trinh-Duc, Jules Plisson and Camille Lopez failing to seize the opportunities provided to them in 2016, but the return of a vibrant French back line is encouraging. In recent seasons, they had a habit of flinging the ball out to Wesley Fofana or Noa Nakaitaci and hoping they would score a try, whereas now they flood the support channels regardless of who has a cut at the line:
This type of play from France didn’t appear out of thin air. There were signs of it in the final round of the Six Nations when they threw the kitchen sink at a Grand Slam-chasing English side. The pre-planned lineout moves used this year have involved guile as opposed to bludgeon, and the message from the management seems to be to run at space rather than contact.
Do Better Days Lie Ahead?
The better performances from individuals, such as Guilhelm Guirado, Yoaan Maestri, Loann Goujon and Virimi Vakatawa, and the general improvements in imagination and execution are suggestive of higher standards being set by the head coach in training. November has been a source of false dawns for France in the past; in 2012, they beat Australia and Argentina convincingly, then finished bottom of the table in the following Six Nations.
They have a difficult schedule in 2017, with away fixtures in London and Dublin, and that Championship is probably going to be another learning curve for a young squad, but by the time June comes around, France should be well-prepared to win a series against a Springbok side that are going from bad to worse under Allister Coetzee.