Most rugby eyes have been on Japan the past few weeks, but a few pairs in France, free from Top 14 distractions, are focused on one big question – where do Les Bleus go from here?
The end of a World Cup cycle is the natural break in the rugby chain. Players retire, coaches move on, plans reset to zero. In France’s case, they’re ahead of the curve. The chain was already broken. It had been since Guy Noves was sacked in December 2017. This World Cup was always close to a write-off. The greater focus has long been on France 2023.
But that doesn’t mean anyone can switch off.
Les Bleus’ new-look coaching team – head coach Fabien Galthie, forwards coach William Servat, attack coach Laurent Labit, defence coach Shaun Edwards, lineout coach Karim Ghezal, and team manager Raphael Ibanez – has been pretty much confirmed since April.
Galthie and Labit, along with new S&C man Thibault Giroud, have been working with the squad since June.
The new team formally starts work this month, less than 100 days ahead of Le Crunch with England in Paris, which kicks off France’s 2020 Six Nations challenge on February 1.
The soft-opening of the Galthie era that took in the World Cup warm-up games and France’s typhoon-shortened run to the quarter-finals, generated five victories and two defeats. It’s a better return than France have enjoyed for several years.
But rugby reality bites now. Galthie has had it easy so far, hidden in the shadow of Jacques Brunel’s bristling moustache.
Never mind that France 2023 is four years away: an eternity in rugby terms. Never mind that the French team at the World Cup opener nearly four years from now will look very different to the one he will likely pick for the start of the 2020 Six Nations – the question Galthie is asking himself is how he plots a path from here and now to there and then.
French coaches have a reputation for needless tinkering. But unless Galthie goes full Guy Noves and rips the heart out of the squad – remember the November 2017 internationals, when then-coach Noves selected close to 70 players? – some is necessary.
He has to take a team that is threatening to recover from years of misery and malaise and move it forward. And upwards.
Confirmed retirees Guilhem Guirado, Wesley Fofana, Sebastien Vahaamahina and Louis Picamoles are out of the equation, so Galthie’s immediate needs include a hooker, a centre, a lock and a No.8.
Yoann Huget and Maxime Medard have said they will make themselves available for selection but, at 32, both are rapidly reaching the wrong end of their playing careers. Does Galthie cut them loose now for two of Alivereti Raka, Vincent Rattez, Thomas Ramos, Kylian Hamdaoui, or Gabriel Ngandebe, or does he hold on to their experience and feather-in younger players as time, form and fitness allow?
Camille Lopez and Rabah Slimani are 30. They probably have one more tournament in their legs, but younger guns are pushing hard for their places.
Bordeaux’s currently injured Mathieu Jalibert and Toulon’s double World U20 winner Louis Carbonel have covetous eyes on Lopez’s 10 shirt, as does Carbonel’s team-mate Anthoney Belleau. Bringing in any one of them would immediately answer France’s perennial kicking problem, and allow Romain Ntamack to move into his more regular midfield position inside Virimi Vakatawa, who will be 31 when the next World Cup swings around, or Pierre-Louis Barassi. And what about the born-again Gael Fickou, who has 50 caps and is still only 25?
Slimani’s tighthead slot is Demba Bamba’s for the having. Watch out, too, for Racing duo Ali Oz and Georges-Henri Colombe, or Grenoble’s powerhouse Mickaël Capelli. Maybe he could follow in the footsteps of Bamba and start his international career from France’s second tier.
Camille Chat capped 26 times at just 23, is a shoo-in for Guirado’s slot in the front row and – if he can sort his lineout accuracy – for some time to come. Though expect to see Toulouse’s fit-again captain Julien Marchand pushing for his chance.
It’s in the second row where Galthie faces his biggest immediate problem. Sebastien Vahaamahina’s international retirement has left France with a hole at five.
In an interview with Midi Olympique, the Clermont lock said he was no longer willing to put his growing family second to international sport.
There are plenty of candidates – the Lyon duo of Felix Lambey and Killian Geraci, La Rochelle’s blond bombshell Thomas Jolmes, Toulouse lineout javelin Florian Verhaeghe or Toulon’s promising Swan Rebbadj – but none offers the defensive oomph of the Clermont monster.
Montpellier’s Paul Willemse would be the closest like-for-like replacement. He was well thought of in South Africa before he chose Les Bleus and became a French citizen.
Les Bleus probably won’t finally settle down much before November 2022. And that side will look quite different from the one we’ll see in February.