Six Nations report card: Fatigued France below par in title defence
After two rounds of the Six Nations, the competition takes a break, allowing us to take stock and provide a report card for each team. Next up, it’s France.
Any season that follows an unbeaten Grand Slam year is always going to be judged in a back-to-back context, and that’s precisely France’s challenge in their 2023 Six Nations campaign, with the added spice of three fixtures on the road, including Ireland and England to add gradient to their uphill climb.
Sure, their Six Nations showing in 2022 was absolutely outstanding, but thereafter a tour to Japan was nothing more than a training run for their stars and their Autumn campaign was characterised by being pushed hard to the wire in matches their billing suggests they should have won comfortably.
A spirited Italy could have taken the spoils in the opener in Rome as France finally won 29-24. The match against Ireland saw one of the most impressive performances by the hosts in recent times as the Irish continuity and structure disposed of Les Bleus 32-19.
With several key players missing, France’s established stars also seem to be something less than in prime form, but with the World Cup less than 150 days away, the key question is, are France in terminal decline or are they victims of their own domestic workload and a form blip?
Many judges would expect names such as Antoine Dupont or Damian Penaud to feature when singling out France’s best performer, and whilst they will always catch the eye, our pick is the impressive and improving Toulouse lock, Thibaud Flament, someone who wouldn’t be starting but for Cameron Woki’s long term injury.
Flament’s star has risen dramatically in the five years since he took up the sport in Belgium and went from a rather unlikely outing at ten in BUCS Four to starting in the second row for France against Argentina at the Stade de France via a spell in Argentina for a placement at the French embassy specifically to focus on rugby, bulking up and learning a different approach to the game.
His lineout work is always compelling, as befits a man of 6’8” tall, but since his debut, 14 tests have illustrated he’s a phenomenal ball player with a work rate comparable with any back row in the Six Nations. His Player of the Match performance against Italy underlined his all-round game, as he charged down for a try and was at the centre of everything his team did well.
In a season where France’s breakdown, lineout, and forward work has been below par by their exalted standards, Flament has made 43 tackles, taken 11 line outs and carried 15 times for over 100 metres. He may not be the flashiest player around, but right now, he’s just about France’s most effective forward.
In the absence of Jonathan Danty at 12, Gael Fickou’s workload has increased by some margin as he is fusing both the carrying duties of the big inside centre with his own defensive and offensive work at 13.
Fickou is a nuts and bolts player – a man that’s happy hammering tackles at the coalface or organising a defensive structure as vice-captain and defensive leader. Indeed, he’s averaging 15 completed tackles per match and some 14 carries, a massive workload on any player. Factor in his outstanding leadership and his worth to France at this moment cannot be underestimated, nor can his ability to hold a defence and take an inside line to create space for others.
Fickou is a complete player these days; France’s only dilemma right now is whether or not to play him in his preferred outside centre role or to bring him inside to fill that carrying role vacated by Danty since injury. In summary, an outstanding season so far.
Once again, in France, the debate over Romain Ntamack versus Matthieu Jalibert is raging like a forest fire. Do you go for the Toulouse understanding of Dupont and Ntamack or the impact of the Bordeaux ten, a man that’s looked far more effective than Ntamack in recent times when it comes to either match control or impact?
To fuel that fire, Jalibert spent precisely 55 seconds on the pitch in Rome before he engineered some brilliant carrying in traffic from Fickou, who took out four defenders to leave Jalibert a stroll home under the posts.
It was a wonderfully worked match-winning try, one based upon Fickou’s commitment and Jalibert’s vision, and it allowed France to close out a match they may otherwise have lost.
The debate won’t be settled on this moment alone, but the performances the Bordeaux man delivers every time he wears the blue shirt might surely see a shift in the selectorial policy before too long?
In Antoine Dupont and Damian Penaud, France have weaponry of thermo-nuclear proportions, which is as true today as last season.
Penuad’s try in Dublin started and finished by him, with a significant contribution from Anthony Jelonch sandwiched in between, as a thing of absolute rugby beauty – a try for the ages and the highlight of an incredible game of rugby.
Dupont might not have been commanding games like last season, but he’s still far and away the best rugby player in the world. Given the lack of match impact delivered by his club ten, Ntamack, his workload has been immense, playing in the unique French way of controlling the match from nine in addition to the standard scrum half duties. His worth to any side he plays in is unquestionable, and it’s only a matter of time before he delivers yet another match-winning personal performance.
France’s key issue is they’re packed with weaponry, but right now, only two or three pieces of their arsenal are firing on all cylinders.
Are France on the downslope of form?
Rather like England’s world cup year in 2003, there’s a school of thought that this side may have peaked a year or so too early, and there are concerns about France’s form leading into their hosting of the tournament in 2023.
France have three key undercurrents, all pulling them under the water; firstly, the form of their superstar forwards, Cyril Baille, Paul Willemse, Charles Ollivon and Gregory Alldritt, isn’t close to that of recent times.
Baille, in particular, seems to have found himself under a lot of pressure at scrum time; both Willemse and Ollivon are coming back after months out of the game, and Alldritt simply seems to be off-colour.
Secondly, injuries; the losses of Danty, Gabin Villiere and Cameron Woki have hurt them a little more than might be expected despite the form of Flament and Ethan Dumortier. Danty and Villiere’s hard running lines are absent from the team, and as a result, things aren’t quite working as they should in midfield, also compounded by the mediocre displays of Ntamack at ten.
Thirdly and lastly, the sheer workload of the TOP14 and EPCR campaigns are taking their toll. When Alldritt played against Caelan Doris in Dublin, he had had 1400 minutes of rugby this season compared to Doris’ 900. That’s a massive workload for any player, let alone an elite eight building up to a world cup.
The form issues and the fatigue problems might well be intertwined, and the injured players will be back in time for the World Cup, so for now, the jury is out. But once these three concerns are fixed, France need to get back to their very best if they’re going to live up to their billing as the hottest RWC favourites in years.
It would be remiss of us not to mention two young players in terms of their development impact, Thomas Ramos and Ethan Dumortier.
They might not yet be the atomic forces that Dupont and Penaud are, but the promise shown thus far in both matches has impressed all despite France’s disappointment in Dublin and under par showing in Rome.
However, in terms of team development, France seem to have stood still since last year, hampered by the issues we’ve mentioned and not really moving their game forward to match the progress of others, such as Ireland and Scotland.
In order to move forward, France need to sort out their midfield control, their centre carrying and the number of errors they’re making in every part of the pitch. In both games thus far, cards and penalty counts have cost them dearly, and those things, unlike injury, form and fatigue, are eminently fixable.
France are below par, of that, there’s no question.
The next three rounds sees them with a potential banana skin at home versus Scotland, a trip to Twickenham, which they always find difficult, followed by the visit of Wales to Cardiff.
To lose all three would be a disaster, yet given France’s form, you’d only bet your wages on the Welsh game as a dead certainty, and the game versus the Scots next Sunday is one that Gregor Townsend’s men will be relishing and seeing as an opportunity to really shake up the 2023 Six Nations.
Overall, we cannot score France more than a C- Grade based upon their expectations after last season. The frustrating thing is that this looks like a side that has a performance in them, but are struggling, with a load of excuses available to them to mitigate their slump.
However, excuses are a thing France have relied upon with gusto in past campaigns. This is the new France, one that parked inconsistency and erratic behaviour the moment Fabien Galthie took over.
In summary, the key question is, does this side want to be that new France or the France of old? Only time will tell us the answer.
READ MORE: Six Nations report card: Inconsistent England still a work in progress under new regime
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