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Column: Crunch will test how far France have come in kicking stakes

Column: Crunch will test how far France have come in kicking stakes

England beat France 44-8 at Twickenham in February. ©INPHO/James Crombie

  • Eight months ago France had no answer to England's kicking game
  • On Saturday they will meet in Yokohama to decide top spot in Pool C
  • This World Cup has been full of tactical kicking

Every World Cup brings with it an innovation that comes to define the competition. In Japan this year it is the use of tactical kicking as an attacking weapon.

We perhaps should have guessed from the way that England employed the approach during the 2019 Guinness Six Nations, using it to devastating effect against both Ireland and France.

Everyone has got in on the act. New Zealand with Richie Mo’unga’s cross-kicks, Finn Russell’s perfect kick-pass for Sean Maitland and Camille Lopez topping even that to pick out Alivereti Raka the following day.

That was one of three French tries against the USA that came from a kick, Raka added another on Sunday in Kumamoto in the win over Tonga.

And yet Les Bleus are still finding their feet when it comes to putting boot to ball.

MEMORIES OF TWICKENHAM

When they travelled to Twickenham in round two of the Championship back in February, Fabien Galthié was working as a TV commentator and an analyst for newspaper L’Équipe.

On the day of the game he explained just how England would use their kicking to target France, and so it proved as Eddie Jones’ side capitalised on the absence of regular full-back Maxime Médard to overrun Les Bleus in a 44-8 success.

Galthié now finds himself in a very different role, having joined Jacques Brunel’s coaching staff ahead of the World Cup, and will be tasked with not only breaking down England’s kicking game, but finding a way of countering it.

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At Twickenham, England kicked 47 times from hand, a number they have not come close to so far in this tournament.

However if France again leave space in behind, then you can be sure that England will look to exploit it.

The hard-fought win over Tonga was slightly concerning in that regard, two of the three Tongan tries came from kicks with Médard undone by a cruel bounce before Damian Penaud was caught between defending close to the line and keeping an eye on the man out wide.

Penaud is an intriguing case. From restarts there are few who can match him. Against Tonga alone he batted back the opening kick-off, another restart in the first half, and then the final restart of the game to effectively seal victory.

In the third set-piece, France can be dangerous from their own kick-off.

Damian Penaud is a major threat from restarts ©INPHO/James Crombie

NATURAL BORN KICKERS

When it comes to using tactical kicking however, it is taking more time.

Sofiane Guitoune started both of the wins over the USA and Tonga in the centres, and was particularly dangerous in the first where he found a number of gaps.

Twice he found himself clean through with just one man to beat. While there was no easy pass on, the opportunity to kick was there, and as he admits himself, it was the right option.

He explained: “Along with Gaël (Fickou), we are not used to kicking in our clubs. There was a moment when I thought about putting the ball in behind, but then I saw the full-back and kept the ball. It is something we have worked on all summer, but it does not come naturally yet.

“We have to keep working so that it comes.”

The lack of kicking, or more precisely, the decision to refrain from using the boot after early success, has been one of the main bugbears of Brunel in the last two matches.

Lopez spoke openly about the need to use and abuse the tactical kicks and even against a team as well-organised as England, that will be an option for France.

The bigger question is how they cope defensively, having had no answer in the spring, admits the fly-half.

He said: “It’s clear that against a team like England, who use it so often, we saw in the Six Nations, it cost us very dear.

“It will be a key element to concentrate on to leave them as little space as possible.”

Camille Lopez spoke about France’s struggles at Twickenham. ©INPHO/Billy Stickland

The game against England will not change how far France go in this tournament. They are through to the quarter-finals regardless.

However, the way they cope with England’s kicking duo – now George Ford and Owen Farrell, in February Farrell and Henry Slade – will tell us a lot about them.

It is impossible to cover every blade of grass on a rugby field. The test for France is whether they can put enough pressure on England to ensure Farrell and co cannot just sit back and pick their spots.