With the Rugby World Cup just 11 weeks away, we take a closer look at each of the competing nations. After profiling eight lower-ranked teams and Japan in recent weeks, we continues our series this week with France.
It’s more than 10 years since Les Bleus lit up Six Nations weekends with their quick hands and smoking footwork, that flamboyant French flare a far cry from the laissez-faire attitude of the present day.
And, while the TOP14 club sides continue to attract some of the world’s elite stars, the international team remains in a state of disarray.
They remain one of sports biggest enigmas, especially with the immense talent they have in their squad.
As a result of this, it’s difficult to know what to expect when Jacques Brunel’s team step out against Argentina in their opening World Cup match on September 21.
In a group that contains England, Tonga, United States and the Pumas, they have an outside chance of making a quarter-final if they decide to compete for the full 80 minutes. In saying that, however, an improving Argentina side should prove too strong and England are likely to stick 30 points on them.
France’s form is too inconsistent to make bold predictions, and since the 2015 World Cup, they have recorded just 11 wins and one draw in 37 matches. The 2018 season was one of their worst in history with two victories from 11 fixtures, including a disastrous home defeat to Fiji.
In 2019, they registered wins against Italy (25-14) and Scotland (27-10) – although the Scots made them look competent in Paris, lacking composure and detail in attack and defence.
France’s kick defence was comical for large spells of the Six Nations campaign, and their general discipline was a disgrace, conceding a bucket load of penalties over the five games.
Discipline is key in professional rugby and Les Bleus need to tighten up in this area if they are to have any chance of positive showing at rugby’s global showpiece.
To underline their inconsistencies, they led Six Nations champions Wales for 70 minutes before a moment of madness from lock Sebastien Vahaamahina allowed Wales to race in for a late try and go on to secure the win.
This is one of the many examples of their failures in recent times. They can secure possession and make some yards, but just aren’t streetwise in their tactics and nearly go off and do their own thing.
If they stayed organised, the score-line against opposition could look more attractive and they might making more games a genuine contest.
It’s a shame the general structure in French rugby is shocking considering how well the sport is run in Ireland, England, France, Wales and Scotland.
The French Rugby Federation are doing no favours and need to change their ways fast, especially with a talented crop of U-20 players coming through who have just secured back-to-back Junior World Cup titles (2018 and 2019).
Basic skills are below par and the fitness is poor and this is something that cannot just be improved on overnight, given the lack of quality time Brunel and his coaching staff have with the squad at the end of a gruelling domestic season.
If there are any positives to draw from the spring campaign it was the emergence of rising stars like Antoine Dupont, Damian Penaud, Thomas Ramos and Romain Ntamack; four players who could potentially be the backbone of a star-studded team in future years.
All four are included in Brunel’s 31-man squad for rugby’s global showpiece, but surprisingly, it does not feature seasoned campaigners Morgan Parra or Mathieu Bastareaud, who was vice-captain of his squad during the Six Nations.
Brunel also included three uncapped players in his squad in winger Alivereti Raka, hooker Peato Mauvaka and prop Emerick Setiano, but there was no space for star winger Teddy Thomas or prop Uini Atonio.
Some notable omissions. But Brunel needs to inspire a team lacking confidence and motivation, especially with a World Cup just weeks away.
It is unlikely we will see the return of any French magic at this edition of the tournament, but with some stunning U-20 players coming through, the talent is certainly there for the Federation to nurture in future years.
Nickname(s): Les Bleus
Head coach: Jacques Brunel
Captain: Guilhem Guirado
Most caps: Fabien Pelous (118)
Top scorer: Frederic Michalak (436)
Top try scorer: Serge Blanco (38)
Home stadium: Stade de France, Paris
Key player: Antoine Dupont. The Toulouse scrum-half was one of the few shining lights in another disappointing Six Nations campaign for France. The 22-year-old has the running, passing and kicking game for Les Bleus to build a game around for the next decade. He is destined to a star at this year’s World Cup.
Best result: Runners-up (1987, 1999 and 2011)
Fixtures: Argentina (September 21), United States (October 2), Tonga (October 6), England (October 12)
DID YOU KNOW?
France have appeared in the semi-finals at every tournament except for 1991 and 2015 where they were knocked out in the quarter-final stage.
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