Analysis: Emergence of youth gives France hope

The 2019 Guinness Six Nations was ultimately frustrating for France, who finished fourth and struggled to produce their best rugby for large periods.

The 2019 Guinness Six Nations was ultimately frustrating for France, who finished fourth and struggled to produce their best rugby for large periods.

The biggest positive for Jacques Brunel was the way his decision to give young players a chance paid off.

Six players were handed international debuts during the Championship including teenager Romain Ntamack who featured in every game.

And while fourth place and two wins from five was not the return Brunel would have hoped for, it gives Les Bleus something to build on.

It seems so long ago now but France’s campaign kicked off with one of the most impressive halves of the entire Championship.

In the rain in Paris they attacked with verve and overwhelmed eventual Grand Slam champions Wales on their way to a 16-0 half-time lead.

It was a sign of the lack of confidence in the team, in sharp contrast to their opponents, that the lead slipped away, with George North’s opportunistic double setting up a 24-19 Welsh victory.

That was followed by a rough outing at Twickenham where Les Bleus never came to grips with the English kicking game on their way to a 44-8 defeat.

They bounced back by beating Scotland 27-10, with Grégory Alldritt scoring a late double to secure a bonus point as part of a deserved victory.

However in Ireland, France struggled to get their hands on the ball in a 26-14 loss, before they finished with a 25-14 win in Rome where they took their chances but were forced to defend for large periods.

There were moments dotted in throughout the Championship, but the standout has to be the clash with Scotland when France scored four tries, and saw another four ruled out by the TMO.

The Toulouse triumvirate of Thomas Ramos, Antoine Dupont and Ntamack combined brilliantly to put the latter in for his first Test try, with a little help from Damian Penaud of Clermont.

And the late drive to get a bonus point was an indication of what this French team is capable of when they get up a head of steam.

For the most part it was the youngsters who shone, but there were a few experienced heads who also reminded us of their talents.

Yoann Huget enjoyed his most prolific Championship, and while he struggled at full-back against England, he scored a try and was a threat with ball in hand in every game he started on the wing.

In the pack Louis Picamoles was a consistent presence with his ball-carrying, perhaps not as eye-catching as in previous years, but very effective.

And a word also for Wenceslas Lauret, who was only able to play two and a bit games before injury ended his campaign, but he was outstanding in each. An asset in the lineout, he is also invaluable to Les Bleus on the deck.

Where to start in terms of the new faces? It probably has to be Ntamack, who at 19 started four games, shifting from centre to fly-half and looking assured throughout.

With the exception of the game against Ireland, when he had very little to work with, he was able to provide the spark in the French back line, and he looks comfortable playing at the highest level.

He was arguably the best French player in Rome, along with Penaud, who was a constant threat on the wing. There is still work to do on his defensive positioning, as expected from a player who only shifted from centre a year ago, but he has a big future.

Then you have the pack where Demba Bamba, a World Rugby Under-20 champion last year with Ntamack, looked right at home at tighthead prop. The Brive youngster is a rare example of a prop who can make that immediate step up, all the more remarkable when you consider he plays in the second flight domestically.

Lock Félix Lambey might have been the best French player of the lot, going from impact sub to starter. The Lyon second row belies his slender frame to make tackle after tackle, and when France did have the ball, he showed enough clever touches to back up those who think he will be a bigger asset on attack than in defence.

Throw in Grégory Alldritt, Arthur Iturria, Dupont and Ramos, all of whom had their moments, and there is definitely something to build around.

Jacques Brunel admitted after the win over Italy that there were frustrations from the French campaign, especially their inability to string a number of performances together.

He said: “The Championship is a disappointment. We are disappointed with our campaign. We were too inconsistent, not playing well sometimes, and sometimes playing badly.

“Like (against Italy), we had moments where we lacked control and other sparks. We were too inconsistent to be satisfied.”

At the end of the campaign FFR President Bernard Laporte spoke of his desire to add to his coaching staff, with the possibility of new appointments in the coming weeks to support Brunel and his staff.

Domestically, Toulouse, Racing 92, Clermont and La Rochelle are all in European knockout games, with the quartet boasting a large proportion of the French squad.

Toulouse and Clermont also lead the way in the Top 14, so it could be a busy end to the season for the likes of Ntamack, Dupont and Penaud.

Prior to the World Cup, France will take on Scotland in a double header, as well as a rematch with Italy.

And the competition itself begins with a crucial clash with Argentina in Chofu, followed by games against the USA and Tonga, and finally an opportunity to avenge the Twickenham defeat against England in Yokohama.

In a tricky group, France will have to be at their best to continue their record of reaching the knockout stages of every World Cup to date.