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.
With the Rugby World Cup just 87 days, we bring you a team-by-team guide of the minnow nations participating in the sport’s global showpiece, along with their coaches, captains, star captains and their best attempts in the competition so far.
What do you think will win in Japan?
Coach: Lyn Jones
Captain: Vasily Artemyev
Star man: Vasily Artemyev. The former Irish schools flyer returned to his homeland in 2009 and has gone on to make 84 appearances. Fast and intelligence, the 31-year-old will be aiming to add to his 30 international tries in Japan.
Best finish: Pool stage (2011)
Fixtures: Japan (September 20), Samoa (September 24), Ireland (October 3), Scotland (October 9).
They may not be the fittest and most colourful side to watch in world rugby, but they’re certainly physical and hungry to win their own ball. A productive 2019 saw the Russians play seven matches, a lot of rugby, but match practice should be helpful to their World Cup campaign.
Coach: Steve Jackson
Captain: Chris Vui
Star man: Chris Vui. The versatile loose forward became the youngest skipper in World Rugby in 2017 at 24. He enjoyed a stellar campaign with Bristol in the Gallagher Premiership, recording 176 carries and 190 tackles to help the Bears cope with the physicality of England’s top flight. Will be crucial to Samoa in Japan.
Best finish: Quarter-finals (1991-95)
Fixtures: Russia (September 24), Scotland (September 30), Ireland (October 12)
With Ireland, Scotland and Japan making up Pool A, Samoa face a tough task at this World Cup. They have shown no signs of improvement in recent years either, with their only wins in 2018 coming against Germany and Japan. Leading into Japan, they take on Tonga, USA and Fiji, warm-up fixtures that should make them more competitive.
Coach: Phil Davies
Captain: Renaldo Bothma
Star man: Renaldo Bothma. The flanker is currently plying his trade in the Gallagher Premiership with Harlequins. A powerful ball carrier and a menace in the tackle, the 29-year-old will be key to Namibia’s hopes of a first-ever World Cup victory.
Best finish: Pool stage (1999-2015)
Fixtures: Italy (September 22), South Africa (September 28), New Zealand (October 6), Canada (October 13)
They may be the lowest-ranked side in the competition, at No22, but this is their sixth-straight World Cup, an impressive feat considering how difficult the qualifying process is for lower-ranked sides. As they continue to improve, those days of heavy defeats are hopefully long behind. Will be targeting victory against Canada.
Coach: Phil Mack
Captain: Kingsley Jones
Star man: Tyler Ardron. The 27-year-old lock-cum-backrower plays his rugby in New Zealand with the Chiefs. A dynamic loose forward, he will be hoping to add his greater experience in a budding side in Japan.
Best finish: Quarter-finals (1991)
Fixtures: Italy (September 26), New Zealand (October 2), South Africa (October 8), Namibia (October 13)
Canada are one of only two sides in the competition – alongside Namibia – ranked outside of the world’s top 20. They may be falling behind their improving neighbours USA, but they will by no means be a pushover against middle tier opposition. Should be focusing on beating Namibia.
Coach: Toutai Kefu
Captain: Siale Piutau
Star man: Siale Piutau. The 33-year-old is one of the Premierships most dangerous centres, using his pace, power and accurate passing ability to put Bristol on the front foot on any given weekend. His experience of 34 caps will make him a central figure when Tonga face powerhouses like England and Argentina in the group stage.
Best finish: Pool stage (1987, 1995-2015)
Fixtures: England (September 22), Argentina (September 28), France (October 6), United States (13)
The Sea Eagles have improved a lot over the years since being considered the whipping boys of the competition. Although they have yet to play in 2019, they had a mixed 2018 campaign, winning two of their five matches, including victories over Fiji and Samoa. Will need to pull something extra special out of the fire to cause an upset in Pool C.
Coach: Gary Gold
Captain: Blaine Scully
Star man: Blaine Scully. With pace and a deft passing ability, Scully can play anywhere across the back three. And if he’s not racing through to touch down for a try, he is trying to put his team-mates in formidable attacking positions. After four successful years at Cardiff Blues, the 31-year-old will return to his native America after the World Cup.
Best finish: Pool stage (1987-91, 1999-2015)
Fixtures: England (September 26), France (October 2), Argentina (October 9), Tonga (October 13)
The Unites States are one of the world’s fast improving international rugby teams, with a new competitive league and a successful national sevens team, who are currently second in the World Series behind Fiji. With the World Cup on the horizon, the hope is the success of the sevens side will have a positive effect on the 15-man game.
Coach: John McKee
Captain: Akapusi Qera
Star man: Leone Nakarawa. The Racing 92 supremo was named European Player of the Year last season after a sizzling campaign where the Parisiens reached the Champions Cup final. Strong, skilled and deceptively quick, the 31-year-old embodies everything which is great about Fijian rugby.
Best finish: Quarter-finals (1987, 2007)
Fixtures: Australia (September 21), Uruguay (September 25), Georgia (October 3), Wales (October 9)
The best of the Pacific Island sides to challenge at the World Cup, although it is unlikely they will qualify from a group that includes Wales and Australia. Still, their attractive brand of rugby and sheer athleticism will capture the imagination of the travelling fans. And with star players like Vereniki Goneva, Bill Mata and Nakarawa at their disposal, the Fijians will definitely be one of the teams to watch.
Coach: Esteban Meneses
Captain: Juan Manuel Gaminara
Star man: Juan Manuel Gaminara. The diminutive 30-year-old flanker is the player Los Teros will be looking to for inspiration when they step out under the bright lights at Kamaishi in three months time.
Best finish: Pool stage (1999-2003, 2015)
Fixtures: Fiji (September 25), Georgia (September 29), Australia (October 5), Wales (October 13)
Uruguay are another team that continue to improve, winning 10 out of their last 13 matches. In 2019, they were beaten against Namibia – their only loss of the year so far. The South American side’s inclusion in Japan will only help the development of the national team going forward and inspire other lesser ranked nations to flourish.
Optimism, belief and confidence are not feelings you immediately presume course through the veins of northern hemisphere teams approaching a World Cup, but Ireland great Brian O’Driscoll is adamant the Men in Green head into this year’s spectacle expecting victory.
And in truth, why would they not head to Japan with spirits sky-high?
There is certainly a swagger in their stride after counting two wins over international rugby’s juggernauts New Zealand in the last two years among their results – in addition to three Six Nations titles in the last five years, one of which yielded the Grand Slam.
They are in the midst of a record 12-game winning run at home – the 11th of which was that 16-9 triumph against the world champion All Blacks during the autumn internationals at the tail end of 2018.
A little over a year ago, it was England – amid a charge under new coach Eddie Jones – being primed as the best-equipped northern hemisphere side to topple the dominance of the mighty All Blacks.
In March 2017 the Red Rose were blossoming under their new boss – their 2015 World Cup debacle all but forgotten as they equalled the run of 18 straight victories by a tier one nation (set by New Zealand, of course).
But Ireland stormed from being the third best team in the world in January 2018 to second by November, just a point in the rankings behind the All Blacks.
Despite their tremendous form, the Irish do not have form on the game’s grandest stage.
They have never even played a semi-final previously – eliminated at the quarter-finals in seven of the eight editions of the tournament. Yet O’Driscoll says a last-four spot will not be enough judging on current form.
“I don’t think this team thinks about getting to a World Cup semi-final like no other team has ever achieved. That’s not the focus anymore, it’s about going and winning it. Actually win the World Cup,” said the legendary Ireland centre – his nation’s most capped player (133) and highest tryscorer (46).
“They’ll have to do it the hard way. The pool looks like it isn’t the most difficult with Scotland the hardest game. But then in the quarter-final you’ve got New Zealand or South Africa, a multitude of semi-finalists, Wales or Australia.
“Wales have been a bogey team and enjoy playing against Ireland, they’ll feel they can score points, so it’s far from a done deal.
“Then, possibly New Zealand in the final. There’s so many ifs, buts and maybes, but Ireland, what they are controlling is their own performance and making themselves very difficult to beat.”
Apart from their scintillating form, and the enormous self-belief that will no doubt generate heading into the tournament – the World Cup kicks-off in Tokyo on September 20 – the awesome depth chart outgoing coach Joe Schmidt has cultivated has transformed Ireland into a menacing force.
After the 2015 World Cup – the Irish were humbled by a 43-20 defeat to Argentina in the quarters – Schmidt made it his mission to develop Ireland’s depth, looking to be ‘three-deep’ in every position.
Their starting XI, on paper and on the pitch, is lethal and key figures like half-backs Johnny Sexton and Conor Murray will have huge roles to play if Ireland are to claim the Webb Ellis Trophy in the Land of the Rising Sun.
But the fact that a troublesome 12 months for lynchpin Murray with injuries is almost negated by the strength at scrum-half behind him – Kieran Marmion and Luke McGrath are far more than just bright back-ups – leaves them looking formidable, even though O’Driscoll remains cautious, espeically with the Six Nations on the horizon.
“They’ve been a coming team for a while now, and it’s their consistency that Irish teams in the past probably struggled with,” said the 39-year-old, who went on four tours with the British & Irish Lions between 2001 and 2013.
“On your bad day it’s 7 out of 10 and on your good day it’s a 9.5 out of 10. They’ve realised recently they don’t always have to be fully on their game to deliver and score points.
“Defensively they’ve been incredible. They’re the best defensive team in world rugby, the best drilled team, there’s an understanding.
“At this moment they’re in great shape but 9-10 months can be a long time depending on what happens. There’s still one or two individuals we can’t afford to lose but on the whole we’re in very good shape.”
The Irish success and defeats of the All Blacks have been masterminded by none other than their messiah-like coach Schmidt – although the former schoolteacher will ring the bell on his Ireland tenure after the World Cup and return to his homeland.
And O’Driscoll feels becoming only the second non-southern hemisphere heavyweight to taste victory on the grandest stage after England 16 years ago would be a fitting end to the Kiwi’s era.
“I think these players who’ve not known any other coach will realise what a phenomenal asset he’s been to Irish rugby,” added ex- Leinster stalwart O’Driscoll, talking to Sport360 as an HSBC ambassador at the Dubai Rugby Sevens last month.
“Jonny’s (Sexton) older but the guys in their late 20s who’ve come through Leinster where he was for three years and won the Heineken Cup, the Sean O’Brien’s of the world, then going into Ireland for five years and winning three Six Nations, a Grand Slam, beating the All Blacks twice, beating every tier one nation in 18 months.
“That’s not ever been done, anything close to it in Irish rugby, so needless to say he’s pretty revered around the country. People are disappointed he’s going but understand. There was a sense he was going so we’re not shocked by the decision.”
Asked if Schmidt’s impeding departure means it’s a case of now or never for Ireland at the World Cup, O’Driscoll added: “We always used to say about New Zealand the best time to beat them is the next time you play them. And the World Cup is the next time we’ll get a chance.”
And while countless Irish fans will lament Schmidt leaving, O’Driscoll believes replacement Andy Farrell – Schmidt’s defence coach for the last two years – has the pedigree required to be a success.
“I was in camp with him for the Lions and was very impressed with him back then,” he said of the former dual code England international, who’s been instrumental in Ireland’s rise.
“I know him, he’s very well spoken, delivers messages brilliantly, has got his defence firing, he’s an ambitious coach so he has all the hallmarks to be a good coach, no doubt.
“I’ve only heard good things from the lads. They were excited being coached by him in 2013 (with the Lions) and when that opportunity arose in 2016 again for him to come into the Irish set-up, they jumped at it.
“He seems to have the template to beat New Zealand in his defensive systems. Four times in the last five-six years and a draw (with the Lions and England), not many have that on their CV.”