Who are you and what have you done with the boys in Bleu? The rejuvenated France that banished the traditional Gallic clichés; the France that dazzled; the France that allowed fans to dream of the audacious and the daring with ball in hand.
After an opening round home loss to Grand Slam-chasing Ireland, France were given the benefit of the doubt. It was their first match without talisman Antoine Dupont; their first with new coaches of both the attack and the line-out, Patrick Arlettaz and Laurent Sempéré respectively; and France had to deal with the fall-out of a first-half red card, to Paul Willemse, for two clumsy clatterings.
Teething problems had been expected in round one and the French rugby public acquiesced on the proviso there was a backlash at Murrayfield in round two. In terms of the result, there was. But in terms of France’s all-round performance, there was little to write home about, save for the odd moment of individual excellence and an obdurate goal-line stand at the death - and even that could have had very different consequences. Whisper it quietly, but France were even beginning to look like the rabble that Fabien Galthié inherited at the end of 2019.
Missing Dupont and Romain Ntamack at half-back, France look rudderless, listless and lifeless. To lay blame at the door of the two half-back replacements, Maxime Lucu and Matthieu Jalibert, is facile, too. The pair have been the beating heart of Bordeaux-Begles this season – the same side who currently sit third in the Top 14 and who dispatched Saracens 55-15 in January - and that club-to-country progression and continuity was seen as a real feather in France’s cap during Dupont’s hiatus.
France love to kick and Lucu has a siege-gun of a boot, topping the scrum-half stats for both length and hang-time respectively after the first round. Jalibert, meanwhile, has always impressed in the blue of France; so much so that the absence of Ntamack was barely felt at the World Cup. There has always been the lingering sentiment across the Channel, too, that Jalibert is pound for pound a better fly-half than Ntamack, but that the latter’s partnership with Dupont with Toulouse, and Galthié‘s desire to pick a fly-half and stick with them, kept Jalibert glued to the bench.
Pinning France’s aimlessness on their half-backs would be disingenuous. The pair might not have enjoyed their most authoritative outing against Scotland but there are far more fundamental issues for Galthié to sort – starting in two areas that Dupont and Ntamack would barely be able to improve: the breakdown and line-out.
Grim reading – and viewing – for Sempéré who took over from Karim Ghezal after the World Cup, with the latter moving to a head coach role at Stade Français. The line-out capitulated against the Irish in Marseille but once again, the caveat was that France had one of their primary jumpers, Willemse, off the field.
On Saturday at Murrayfield, there was no excuse. Cameron Woki, Willemse’s replacement in the starting XV, is one of the most athletic locks in world rugby and an imperious line-out forward; Paul Gabrillagues, Woki’s second-row partner, is noted for his set-piece studiousness and the French back-row of Alldritt, Charles Ollivon and François Cros is a rarity in professional rugby. All three jump.
There is no excuse. Peato Mauvaka has been given the hooker jersey ahead of Julien Marchand having always been the latter’s understudy with both club (Toulouse) and country, but it might be time for Galthié to revert to type. Mauvaka is a wondrous hooker, but so is Marchand, and certainly the latter excels in rugby’s nuts and bolts more than Mauvaka, who should be exploding off the bench in the final 30 minutes. France’s hooker balance is off; and so too their line-out with it. After a 91 per cent success rate in 2022 and 88 per cent in 2023, it is currently operating at 79 per cent efficiency according to Stats Perform. And one of those 79 per cent, while technically won by Woki in the air on Saturday, ended up as Scotland possession.
Under Galthié, France developed into one of the world’s best breakdown exponents. Julien Marchand at hooker, Grégory Alldritt at No 8 and Jonathan Danty at centre – as well as others – established themselves as three of the best jackallers in the world. But on the other side of the ball, France – something also driven by defence coach Shaun Edwards – were accurate and aggressive at clearing out defenders in attack, which provided the quick ball for Dupont and co to thrive.
Among traditional ‘tier one’ nations in 2022, France had the second best attacking ruck efficiency, according to data compiled by Oval. Only Ireland, by 0.2 percentage points, were ahead of Les Bleus in terms of holding onto their own ball at the ruck. That was in a year in which France won a Grand Slam and defeated eventual world champions South Africa.
Since then, however, there has been a gradual decline. It began in 2023 – a year in which they crashed out of a home World Cup at the quarter-final stage after defeat to those same Springboks – but after two rounds of the 2024 Six Nations, France have dropped from second to 10th in terms of looking after their own ball in attack. That leaves just Italy beneath them and even Australia above them.
This might seem minor, but it has had major consequences for France. South Africa, in that World Cup quarter-final victory, identified the shakiness of France’s wings, Damian Penaud and Louis Bielle-Biarrey, as an area of potential exploitation and certainly the latter’s precariousness under the high ball did nothing to help France’s cause in the loss.
Thomas Ramos is usually immaculate in this regard at full-back but his wings remain susceptible. Scotland targeted Penaud at Murrayfield and forced errors while Bielle-Biarrey, the match-winner, never looked assured. Jalibert, too, dropped a dolly in the backfield.
⌚️ A chip over the top timed to absolute perfection from France's Louis Bielle-Biarrey to put his side ahead and on course for the victory in Edinburgh 🙌#Breitling #DefiningMoment @Breitling pic.twitter.com/cDgdpYbY6v
— Guinness Men's Six Nations (@SixNationsRugby) February 12, 2024
Before Ramos established himself as a regular fixture in the French starting XV in 2023, Melvyn Jaminet occupied the No 15 jersey. At that point, France’s success at recovering defensive high balls was 73 per cent. In 2023, with Ramos installed in the backfield, it rose to 93 per cent. After two rounds of this year’s Six Nations, however, it has dropped to its worst point in the past two years, at 71 per cent, according to Stats Perform. The better teams are cottoning on to their aerial fallibility and it could continue to blight them.
Lacking attacking shape
France did not kick anywhere near as much as we might have expected against Ireland – just 19 times – and then tipped the balance the other way against Scotland, kicking 39 times, perhaps over-compensating for their paucity with the boot a week earlier.
With the kicking wrongs righted, the attacking ruck speed, when the ball was won, was still good – 62 per cent of their rucks so far in the 2024 Six Nations have lasted for fewer than three seconds, which is a two per cent improvement on their Grand Slam triumph in 2022.
Generating a quick ball is one thing; being ready for it and knowing what to do with it is another. That is where Arlettaz has a job on his hands. France’s attack never looked fluent or fluid against Ireland and against Scotland it still looked as though Les Bleus were all singing off different hymn sheets.
Below, France have just recovered the ball from a slightly mis-hit Lucu box-kick. The recycling is swift, but the reaction to it is not. Mauvaka, the hooker, is alone at first receiver, crabbing sideways; there are four forwards loitering on the blindside and, as the action progresses – detailed in the grabs below – Mauvaka feeds Ramos who slides laterally before popping to Jalibert who does well to clear under immense pressure. France were shovelling the proverbial and the fly-half had no choice but to hope that his clearing kick, struck 15 metres behind the gain line, would avoid the Scotland defenders who had eagerly lined him up. This was off what was in essence turnover ball, too - the sort of scenario in which France usually thrive.
In many respects, a game against Italy, France’s next opponents in Lille, is the perfect match to iron out what has become a very creased blue shirt. In others, however, the Azzurri will have watched Saturday’s match at Murrayfield and fancy their chances. It is a big fortnight for Galthié and his assistants.