THE first signs that France are getting their act together ahead of their Pool showdown with England in the 2019 World Cup on October 12 in Yokohama is that there is nothing flaky about their 31-man squad.
Usually you can rely on the French to pick a squad in which there are a handful of selections that are eccentric at best, and loopy at worst. However, on this occasion, it seems as if nearly all of France’s best players are not only fit, but have also found their way into the same squad at the same time.
There is also the important consideration that while the choices made may have been attributed to veteran coach Jacques Brunel, the safe pair of hands with his prints all over it belong to Fabien Galthie.
The former French captain and scrum-half has already been appointed to succeed Brunel as national coach from 2019 through to the 2023 World Cup, which France hosts. Galthie has also been installed as a consultant coach in the current national set-up, and has been working alongside Brunel since April.
The result is that France have looked like a more coherent outfit during the World Cup warm-ups than they have at any stage over the last year.
You only have to turn the page back to a dismal 2018 autumn campaign, which saw France lose to Fiji (21-14) and South Africa (29-26) in Paris, before slumping to a fourth place finish in the 2019 Six Nations to understand the significance.
Defeat by Wales (24-19) at the Stade de France, followed by away losses against England (44-8) and Ireland (26-14), saw Brunel’s side being billed, both at home and abroad, as World Cup no-hopers.
Despite saving face with a home win over Scotland (27-10) and another over Italy (25-14) in Rome, France desperately needed a reboot ahead of the World Cup.
That has been provided by big home wins this summer over Scotland (32-3) and Italy last weekend (47-19) – set against a narrow return defeat by the Scots at Murrayfield (17-14) – and it means they will travel to Japan confident of making the last eight again.
France have a better record of reaching the knock-out stage than England in terms of consistency, having made the quarter-finals at every World Cup since the inaugural tournament in 1987, whereas England did not get out of the Pool stage in 2015.
Set against that England have the trump card of being the only northern hemisphere world champions after their triumph in 2003, as well as finishing as losing finalists narrowly on two other occasions (1991 and 2007) – whereas France have yet to win the biggest prize of all.
The French have been in the hunt for glory as losing finalists three times – and after being well-beaten in 1987 and 1999, they came tantalisingly close when they lost 8-7 to New Zealand in Auckland in 2011.
England and France have both had their campaigns ended by their arch-enemies on the other side of The Channel, with the French losing to England three times – the 1991 quarter-final in Paris, the 2003 semi-final in Sydney, and the 2007 semi-final in Paris – whereas the English have been knocked out by France once, in the 2011 quarter-final in Auckland.
Those past exploits will have very little bearing on what happens in Yokohama, because this is not just new ground in terms of England going into the World Cup with an overseas coach, in Eddie Jones, but also because the two nations had been drawn in the same Pool for the first time.
Given the deep rivalries in the French club game no national squad is likely to get a complete seal of approval from all sides, and the 2019 selection is no exception – especially after the squad was cut from 37 to 31 earlier this week.
One of the main areas of contention was in the back five of the scrum, where two mobile 25-year-olds – Felix Lambey, the red-haired Lyon lock/back row utility, and Toulouse flanker/No.8 François Cros – were left out.
The controversy was fuelled because there has been an increased emphasis on fitness and mobility in the pack since Galthie’s arrival on the scene, and Lambey and Cros are considered to be faster than rivals included in the squad, like the Racing ‘92 lock/back row Bernard Le Roux and the veteran Montpellier No.8 Louis Picamoles.
However, Brunel outlined that the drawback with Lambey (6ft 4ins, 15st 10lbs/100kg) and Cros (6ft 3ins, 15st/95kg) is that they are both lightweight by modern Test standards. By comparison, the 36-cap Le Roux (6ft 5ins, 17st 10lbs/113kg) and 79- cap Picamoles (6ft 4ins, 18st 4lbs/116kg) are bigger, more powerful men.
This was offset by the decision by Brunel/Galthie not to take the massive Toulon lock Romain Taofifenua (6ft 7ins, 21st/133kg), because his speed and stamina were not at the required level in the game against Italy.
Instead, more mobile, streamlined locks like Clermont’s Arthur Iturria (6ft 5ins, 17st 7lbs/112kg) and Le Roux have been picked alongside combine harvester-sized second rows like Stade’s Paul Gabrillagues (6ft 6ins, 18st 10lbs/119kg) and Clermont’s Sebastien Vahaamahina (6ft 8ins, 19st 9lbs/125kg).
There were also a few rumblings of discontent over the way that Toulon fly-half Anthony Belleau was not given his chance to stake a claim in the warm-ups. The 23-year-old did not get any game-time against either the Scots or Italy, prompting Mourad Boudjellal, his shoot-from-the-hip club president, to slam the France management.
“Take Anthony Belleau for two months, so he does not have a minute of play, what does that say? Is he nothing? Is he hurt? I don’t understand this management…it’s disrespectful to the players.”
Whether Boudjellal is qualified to criticise others for being disrespectful to players is a moot point, but Brunel let it be known that the decisive factor was to have a 10 who can also play inside-centre, and that Toulouse young gun Romain Ntamack was considered to be ahead of Belleau in that area.
Another not to get the chance to play at all in the warm-up’s was the in-form La Rochelle winger, Vincent Rattez, who also lost out in the final squad to the Fijian-born pair Alivereti Raka (Clermont) and Viliame Vakatawa (Racing 92).
France start the tournament with a must-win game against Argentina on the opening weekend – but it is the last match against England that will almost certainly decide which two of the three teams vying to get out of the “pool of death” make the last eight.
England’s record against France under Jones is won 3, lost 1, with England clinching their 2016 Grand Slam 31-21 victory in Paris, and then edging home 19-16 at Twickenham in 2017. France’s 22-16 win on home soil in 2018 redressed the balance before they were hammered 44-8 in south-west London six months ago. That encounter indicated a chasm between the two teams, with England scoring six tries to France’s one – including a hat-trick for Jonny May.
However, the evidence since Galthie’s arrival on the scene is that France will not be so easily overrun in Japan due to improvements in fitness and organisation. There is also an interesting footnote that eight of France’s 31-man squad started in the 2018 Six Nations win, so there are a number of players who know they are capable of beating England.
There is an additional sense when you look at the teams man for man, and unit by unit, France will be an awkward proposition for anyone.
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