We will have to wait to discover if France can secure their first Six Nations title since 2010 but one thing for certain is: Les Bleus are back with Shaun Edwards making an impact.
Down in Canet-en-Roussillon, a small seaside commune near the France-Spain border situated a few miles from rugby-daft Perpignan, one of the architects of their revival is holed-up with his partner and two young daughters in coronavirus lockdown.
Shaun Edwards, a bundle of energy in normal times, is restless. However, he is able to reflect on a thrilling reawakening of France’s rugby soul.
Edwards admits to being taken aback by the reception he has received since joining France’s coaching team and helping them to stunning victories over England and Wales.
Edwards told The Rugby Paper: “Somebody asked me before the Six Nations what my aim was for the competition. You say you want to win it, blah blah blah, but my aim generally was exactly the same as when I went to Wales: I want to make the French people proud of their team.
“I’ve always wanted fans to be proud of their team. If you achieve it, you’ll usually be in the hunt to win things.
“It was incredibly difficult coming here at first, to be honest. I came back from the World Cup with Wales on the Monday after we played New Zealand and by the following Saturday I was in France for meetings, helping Fabien Galthie and the coaches set out the ethos of our team.
“Having been away for around 225 days in all, to go straight to France and be away from my family again was really hard. But I’ve been welcomed so well here, particularly by my fellow coaches like William Servat, Laurent Labit and Rafa Ibanez. They couldn’t have been any more welcoming. I’d heard William was a good guy and a great character. He certainly hasn’t let me down.
“My French is improving as well. To have a long conversation would be beyond me but I can coach in French and as long as I prepare for presentations and coaching sessions everything’s okay.”
Head coach Galthie has decided to trust in youth. The likes of fly-half Romain Ntamack (aged 20) and No.9 Antoine Dupont (23) have been given their heads while the more experienced Gael Fickou has flourished as Edwards’ defensive leader.
Edwards explained: “Like most teams, 70-75 per cent of your players pick themselves, it’s the last 25-30 per cent which are up for negotiation. But with a big World Cup here in 2023, Fabien was determined that with any 50-50 or 60-40 calls, we wanted the younger guys.
“We must have been one of the youngest squads ever with an average age of around 23. They’re a very coachable group, though, and my defensive captain, Gael Fickou, was a great aid to me as a leader.
“He earnt the respect of the rest of the players. There were other strong characters and you always look to your back row from a defensive aspect. Guys like Francois Cros, Charles Ollivon and Gregory Alldritt were pretty consistent while outside them, Dupont and Ntamack really shone.”
France struck a devastating blow first-up against England in Paris. With 203 tackles to England’s 138 and a 90 per cent completion rate, their young side got their campaign off to the best possible start.
Edwards says: “Let’s be honest, a couple of bounces of the ball went our way for one of the tries and we had to defend for long periods in the second half against the second-best team in the world, but we certainly showed what we were about.
“Our goal-line defence in particular was very impressive because at times it’s virtually impossible to defend your goal-line because of the way the game is now refereed. People are constantly sealing off at the contact area, there’s no contest for the ball whatsoever in some of the rucks.
“If you look at referees now, they’re not looking at the attackers at all, they’re just looking at the defence, so that makes it even harder to defend close to your try-line. I’m still waiting for someone to be done for sealing off close to the try-line in attack, which would probably be the first time a referee has looked at the attack.
“All you see now is double-latching before contact, which is against the laws, and guys immediately sealing the ball off. The great thing about Rugby Union is that there’s always a contest for the ball whether it be at lineout, scrum, restarts or rucks, but this is one area where there’s no longer a fair contest and that needs to be looked at.”
France laid the foundations for a potential Grand Slam with victories over Italy and Wales, although the latter was an occasion Edwards was too tired to savour.
“It was just very draining,” he says. “It was very emotional for me to go back to Cardiff and, after winning that match, I was absolutely shattered. I just wanted to go back to my hotel room, sit there with a glass of wine and then go to bed.
“It was a game that could have gone either way. Wales have got some great players and coaches, but on the day we did enough to earn the win and our two young half-backs again played really well.”
Of Dupont, below, Edwards purrs: “He’s a top talent. He’s got pace and he’s got explosiveness and he’s also got pretty decent vision. The good thing about Antoine is there’s still improvement in him; his vision in defence can get better and when he starts really understanding the defensive side of the game as much as he does attack, he’s going be an even better player.
“Him and Romain Ntamack combined together pretty well and long may it continue with those two pushing to be the first-choice No.9 and 10.
“Everyone knows what a talent Romain is. He needed some help with his goal-kicking from Vlok Cilliers, our South African kicking coach, but you could see a big improvement there and to not miss any kicks against England and Wales was outstanding.
“Goal-kicking is such an important part of international rugby because a lot of games are decided by such small margins. I learned a lot about that from my time at Wasps and being around Neil Jenkins and the goal-kickers we were lucky to have with Wales, so Romain’s well on the way to being that reliable kicker you need on those really big occasions.”
France’s Grand Slam dream ended in Scotland, where a first half red card for headstrong prop Mohamed Haouas helped wreck their chances.
“You can’t be throwing punches nowadays,” says Edwards. “You might have done it in the 80s but in situations like that, where players are pushing and shoving, you’ve got to hold your ground and not give an inch, but definitely don’t throw a punch. Even if you miss, you’ll probably still get sent off.
“As for Scotland, I knew after watching them play Ireland what was coming. Everyone said they didn’t play well but I actually thought they were outstanding. Stuart Hogg will never drop a ball like he did if he plays another 10,000 games and I thought their aggression and work in contact, defence and attack, was fantastic. Going to Scotland is hard at the best of times, to do it with 14 men for 60 minutes is even harder.”
A French stereotype that Edwards explodes is the one that suggests training regimes across the Channel are lax and that players are not as fit as their English or Welsh counterparts. “That is extremely untrue from what I’ve seen,” Edwards said. “Fabien Galthie certainly understands GPS and the numbers the guys must hit. On one training day, some of our players covered 10kms.”
So, what of France and their potential? Says Edwards: “It’s huge and my job is to make players better.
“Over four games we had to defend more than anyone else and it’s satisfying that the lads bought into the system. They enjoyed doing it.”
As for life in locked-down France, Edwards adds: “I was relieved my partner and our two daughters got over a fortnight ago because I didn’t fancy being on my own for four months again. The girls are aged five and three so I’m having to learn how to educate them.
“We live about six miles from Perpignan and a lot of the Catalan Dragons lads live nearby. That was one of the reasons I came here. I intended to watch a bit of Rugby League but that’s been cancelled. We’ve just got to get through this difficult period.”