• Feature: French revival

    Three years away from a home World Cup, a youthful and talented France team is building a formidable winning culture, writes JAMES HARRINGTON in the latest SA Rugby magazine.

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    What a difference 18 months makes. It is, for example, about how long Rassie Erasmus needed to turn a dysfunctional South Africa into world champions. 

    Somewhat further out from the next World Cup, a similar transformation is taking place in France. Some 18 months after Fabien Galthie joined the coaching set-up, Les Bleus are genuinely good again, for the first time in a long time.

    At the end of November, he had seven wins from his first eight games as head coach – all against Six Nations opposition. It’s an early record that compares favourably with his two most recent predecessors. Guy Noves won four of his first 11 games in 2015 and his tenure was cut short two years later with his record at seven wins in 21. Jacques Brunel managed just three wins in his first year and a final tally of 10 from 24.

    It has not all been plain sailing. Less than a year into his tenure, Galthie admitted his future as France coach hinged on Bernard Laporte’s re-election as FFR president in early October despite his arrest and release in connection with a conflict-of-interest scandal involving Montpellier owner and France shirt sponsor Mohed Altrad. Then a row over player-release for the extended end-of-year international window was resolved with a three-match limit for individual players.

    Yet the results keep coming. Victories over Wales and Ireland in October were followed by a first win in Edinburgh since 2014. But that’s not what has brought the greatest joy to fans and French rugby media. 

    The most exciting change has been the high-intensity, full-throttle brand of rugby. After years of playing like punch-drunk heavyweights in the final round of a title fight, France have been a quick-witted, lightning-footed delight under Galthie. Some even claim to have spotted hints of ‘French Flair’.

    France are moulded in a different image now. Galthie cast out the old soldiers. A painful interview with Wenceslas Lauret in which he doubted his ability to adapt to the demands of the new regime went viral, it’s message clear: it’s Galthie’s way or the highway.

    Anyone over 30 was considered past it. There was no room for Yoann Huget, Maxime Medard, Rabah Slimani or Louis Picamoles.

    South African-born Bernard Le Roux was the only player to have hit that age milestone in the new coach’s first squad. He retained a lone thirtysomething statesman status until Romain Taofifenua joined him in the second row for the Autumn Nations Cup match against Scotland. 

    While the French pack remains terrifyingly big, it’s more mobile than it has been for years. The backs are younger, faster, and fearless, utterly at home with a free-flowing, rapid-fire brand of rugby that switches from defence to attack in a flash. 

    Some of this is good fortune. Galthie inherited the head coach’s mantle at an inflection point in French rugby – a generational shift as the world U20 champions of 2018 and 2019 graduated to the senior set-up. It helped, too, that these young players have racked up serious game time in the Top 14, as clubs – for financial and regulatory reasons – prove their ‘Made in France’ credentials.

    But the style, the intensity, is pure Galthie. 

    Le Roux, who was there in the dark times, having made his France debut in 2013, told former internationals Benjamin Kayser and Johnnie Beattie on Le French Rugby Podcast: ‘I wouldn’t like to work with Fabien for 11 months – he’s so intense. But for these short bursts – two or three months during the World Cup, or in the Six Nations, he’s so good.’

    Change came quickly when Galthie joined the coaching set-up as ‘an assistant’ before the 2019 World Cup. He had already been named to replace Brunel when he was parachuted into the coaching staff early following another dismal showing in that year’s Six Nations. 

    Galthie’s choice of fitness coach, Thibault Giroud, and backs coach Laurent Labit also came in to bolster Brunel’s staff. It was a smart move for France at the time, and a second stroke of good fortune for Galthie, who was effectively given a free run in Japan – a soft out-of-town opening to test his plans and the players before he officially took over.

    It did not go unnoticed. An unnamed Top 14 coach told French rugby website Rugbyrama at the time: ‘The players are not stupid. They know Galthie will be the next coach. They will want to be regarded well … They will drive for him.’

    They did. They wasted no time name-checking the new guy. ‘The gameplan is more specific,’ French hooker Camille Chat told reporters before France headed to Japan. ‘Galthie is pragmatic. We understand what he wants.’

    Centre Gael Fickou added: ‘What has changed since Fabien Galthie joined the staff? Everything is clearer, more certain. We know exactly what we have to do.’

    Not everyone at the time was convinced. Players fell by the wayside during attritional World Cup training camps. Galthie and Giroud were criticised for their approach. The French rugby press, fearful of another false dawn, regarded the whole thing as too brutal.

    ‘We had pressure from the media and clubs because we lost players the whole summer,’ Giroud told The XV. ‘Every week we had players going home because they couldn’t keep up. 

    ‘We had to take a risk before the World Cup. Yes, we injured some of the boys, but I think it was very important to change that culture and make that step.’

    That was a third slice of Galthie good fortune. Unusually, he had a near-uninterrupted five-month period from July to October to instil his philosophy, his vision, on players determined to impress him, compared to the couple of weeks he would have had before the 2020 Six Nations. 

    But all this good fortune is the bushel hiding the light of crucial good decisions. 

    Le Roux describes the most instrumental of them. ‘What France did well, they handpicked the staff. They brought in Rafael Ibanez. He’s looking after the players and the human side of the team … Fabien’s just concentrating on rugby.’

    The demarcation is crucial. Ibanez has a pastoral role. Galthie is pure rugby. Giroud ensures France are fit for modern international rugby purpose. William Servat and Karim Ghezal drill the forwards, Labit the backs. 

    The final piece of the puzzle is defence – and Shaun Edwards. ‘We have to put in place structures and add intensity to them,‘ he said when he joined the coaching set-up in January. ‘France plays with passion, but passion is not enough. At international level, all the teams have that. 

    ‘We need structures. I’m sure they existed before, but Les Bleus have lost them.’

    After that, Edwards has nothing to offer on the training pitch but blood, sweat and tears. ‘We need a line that goes up faster, makes more double tackles, more intelligent decisions. Attack the ball on the ground and in the air. Permanent aggressiveness. Repeated effort – over and over again.’

    The French love him. They love his no-nonsense approach, his instant effect on the team – those first victories were built on his ferocious defence – and the fact he learned the language.

    But it’s not enough for Galthie to have his pick of the coaches. They have to work together. And they trained. Before the staff met the players ahead of the 2020 Six Nations, they worked on their training skills with France U20s. The phrase ‘train to train’ may be trite, but it’s about the only thing that was. This pre-training practice honed coaching skills, drills and messages so no time was wasted when it mattered.

    But the main difference is philosophical. As Le Roux said: ‘For the first five years I was with France, we were always chasing what the All Blacks were doing, or what England were doing – we were always comparing stats. 

    ‘For the first time we’re not chasing any other team any more, we’re taking the players we’ve got and doing the things that suit us.’

    Tellingly, the players are happy and confident. ‘We work tremendously hard. I’ve never trained like that before. Fabien’s all about high intensity and big training, but afterwards … after every game we get on the beers and we have a good time.’

    Lock Paul Willemse – one of the players to miss the World Cup with an injury picked up in those brutal World Cup training camps – told Le Figaro: ‘Every week I spend with this team and this staff, I gain confidence.’ 

    The reason is simple: ‘I have a specific job. Every touch, every ball carried, I know what to do. If I do my job, it helps the team. For every player, it’s like that. We’re focused on that.’

    And Galthie? France had quietly written off the 2019 World Cup before he came on board. His target always has been 2023, some 30-odd matches, away. That’s how he talks about it – in a match-by-match countdown. Yes, he’s been fortunate. But he’s got the players and he’s got the coaches.

    Le Roux’s right. He’s too much for day-in-day-out club rugby, but the short-burst frequency of international rugby suits him. The only question is: will the magic last that long?

    BOLD PREDICTION

    Former England coach Clive Woodward believes France will claim the 2023 World Cup title on home soil.

    Woodward was the mastermind behind England’s last World Cup title win in 2003. Writing in his regular column for the Daily Mail at the end of October, the 64-year-old explained why he thinks France could be the favourites to claim what would be their very first World Cup title in the next edition of the tournament in 2023.

    ‘All my coaching life, and now working in the media, I have viewed the southern hemisphere giants as the Test benchmark. Beat them regularly, especially away from Twickenham, and you will eventually be the world’s best,’ Woodward wrote.

    ‘As we look forward to the final weekend of the much-delayed 2020 Six Nations, however, I feel it is France who England need to measure themselves against.

    ‘Three years out from the World Cup and France, on home soil, are my tip to win it. The French aren’t the finished article but I see an exceptional generation of brilliant players — forwards and backs — maturing together.

    ‘Once [head coach] Fabian Galthie and [defence coach] Shaun Edwards sort out a few loose cannons up front and get on top of the discipline issue, they are going to be formidable.

    ‘I see potentially the world’s best half-back pairing in Antoine Dupont and Romain Ntamack, a fantastic centre pairing of Virimi Vakatawa and Gael Fickou, try-scorers like Teddy Thomas and magic players like Thomas Ramos. In the forwards, led by the amazing Camille Chat, they are big, athletic and nasty. There are still creases to iron out but France are only going one way.’

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    Craig Lewis