The time has come for Fabien Galthié’s France to deliver a trophy

·6-min read
<span>Photograph: Mike Hewitt/Getty Images</span>
Photograph: Mike Hewitt/Getty Images

They begin the Six Nations as favourites after some scintillating performances but winning silverware can be the hardest step

There is an old story about Fabien Galthié that is worth telling again now, a week out from the start of the Six Nations. It is from 2003, when France’s head coach was captaining the team in the World Cup. It was his fourth, he had been in teams that lost in the quarters in 1991, semis in ’95, and final in ’99. Understandably, he was hell-bent on finishing his career by winning the thing.

But France were beaten in the semi-finals again, 24-7 by England. That left them one game to play, the third-place play-off against New Zealand four days later. By the time it came around, Galthié had already gone. He was fit but had quit and flown back from Australia to France.

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Galthié said it was because his uncle had just died, but he had already announced he was retiring right after the semi-final when he admitted in private he wasn’t interested in playing the last game. There were plenty of people who thought Galthié, famously driven and furiously intense, had walked out on the team because he was so utterly focused on winning that he felt like it was first or nothing. It was held against him when he was repeatedly overlooked for the job of national coach, which he wanted so much and went instead to Marc Lièvremont, Philippe Saint-André, Guy Novès and then Jacques Brunel.

Some of those appointments look even worse now, given how well France have played since Galthié finally did take over in 2019. He and his crack band of assistant coaches, Shaun Edwards, William Servat and Thibault Giroud, have had a transformative effect on the team. They have shepherded the best of the talented young bunch who won back-to-back titles in the World Under-20 Championship into senior rugby, finished runners-up in the Autumn Nations Cup and in two Six Nations, won their first away victory over Australia in 30 years, and, best yet, beat New Zealand by 15 points in Paris last November.

All of a sudden, as the Italy coach, Kieran Crowley, says, France are “the team of the moment” and clear favourites to win what is shaping up to be a fiercely competitive Six Nations. After a decade of dysfunction, there is a sense that things are finally starting to come together.

The prospect of hosting the World Cup in 2023 has got the French Federation, run by Galthié’s old coach and great mate Bernard Laporte, and the Top 14 clubs pulling together in the same sort of direction. Which is why Galthié might just be beginning to feel a little twitch of that old anger of his because he, his coaches and players know the one thing they haven’t done yet is win a championship.

Edwards has said as much, more than once. “We’re kind of everyone’s second-favourite team at the moment aren’t we?” he said recently. “We’ve got a bit of respect, but we haven’t won anything yet. That’s the next step, and it’s often the hardest one.”

Antoine Dupont will captain the side during the Six Nations.
Antoine Dupont will captain the side during the Six Nations. Photograph: Franck Fife/AFP/Getty Images

And they need to make it soon. Not just because it’s been so long – the French haven’t won the Six Nations since 2010 – but because the World Cup is so close. It’s a young squad buoyed by the sense of expectation, but that could switch pretty quickly and begin to feel like a hell of a lot of pressure unless they prove to themselves, and everyone else, that they can win a trophy.

Eddie Jones knows. He picked up on it when he was asked about France’s chances. “You know, France are sitting at the top of the tree in the Six Nations, red-hot favourites, expected to win, and if they don’t the French rugby public is going to be disappointed,” Jones said. “They’ve shown what great depth they’ve got, they had a development tour to Australia and the results were amazing. And then they’ve got the luxury of having 43 players in camp, the grand master of French rugby, Bernard Laporte, has done a great job in getting the clubs to work with the French union. So they don’t have any excuses. And all of that comes with a price.”

A price, Jones said, which he was sure France’s new captain, Antoine Dupont, “would be able to handle”, even if “he does have a lot on his plate already”. Which might just be a typical little bit of mischief-making from a coach who knows France are likely to be one of the biggest obstacles to his England team achieving his own dream of winning the World Cup next year. But it still has a hint of Jones’s thinking in it, of the weaknesses he sees, and how he wants to exploit them. As for Galthié, he is handling it by talking up everyone else.

“We’re happy and proud to be considered the team of the moment, but Ireland have been undefeated since February, beat the All Blacks in November, and are ahead of us in the rankings. Scotland have put in some great performances. Wales won last year. England won two years ago. They all have the ability to win this tournament.”

France’s Six Nations has already had a wobbly start, with Dupont and a group of his Toulouse teammates forced to miss the first week of training after testing positive for Covid.

Given they begin with a home game against Italy, they’ll cope, but the tournament is still going to be a test of France’s ability to put together a string of performances like those they will need to in 2023.

That win against the All Blacks came after four weeks of prep, all focused on that one match, the squad built up to it through games against Argentina and Georgia. Beating Ireland, Scotland, Wales and England back-to-back is going to be a very different sort of test. Not for the first time in Galthié’s life, winning is starting to feel like everything, and anything else isn’t enough.

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