“We have been average so far.” Fabien Galthié summed it up best in the build-up to France’s trip to Twickenham.
The 2022 Grand Slam champions had seen their 14-match unbeaten streak ended in Dublin, the defeat sandwiched between laboured wins over Italy and Scotland.
In 2023, perhaps the most important year in French rugby history, Les Bleus had not found the form that had made them World Cup contenders and the whispers that they might have peaked too soon were getting louder.
Those questions were answered emphatically on Saturday at Twickenham. The 18-year wait for a Guinness Six Nations victory in south-west London was ended with a seven-try 53-10 success where even the rain could not dampen the spirits of those French fans who had made the journey across the Channel.
Thomas Ramos had them in front inside two minutes – remarkably, longer than it had taken France to get the first try at this ground two years earlier.
France’s tactical masterclass had started even sooner, however, from the very first kick-off.
Change of exit strategy
In Antoine Dupont, Les Bleus have one of the greatest players of his generation and the scrum-half with arguably the longest kicking game in the world.
However, there had been a sense in recent games that opposition teams were starting to target Dupont.
Even the best box-kickers need space in order to function, but with how often France were using his boot to clear their lines, they were starting to become predictable. Scotland were able to pressurise the French skipper twice in the space of two minutes in the first half of their trip to Paris.
There was a clear plan to change their approach, which was evident from the opening minute of the game.
Rather than use Dupont’s boot to clear, as has become customary, France spread the ball to Romain Ntamack, who then used Grégory Alldritt on a charge. With the No.8 getting over the gain-line, France then used Ntamack’s boot to clear deep.
It was an approach that they employed again on subsequent restarts – of which there were many – with Ramos explaining the thinking behind the tactical adjustment.
He said: “We didn’t feel like putting ourselves in danger only exiting by box-kick.
“So we wanted to change our way of doing things a little bit, we also knew that we had a lot of pressure on our exits from previous matches about when teams would target him (Dupont).
“So we saw that we wanted to change our approach, we wanted to vary it a little bit and in the end he took a few hits, but he had less pressure because they did not know who was going to kick, if we were to go through Romain, through me, through Antoine, they did not know, so it’s good to vary.”
That is not to say that Dupont was relieved of kicking duties in the game, in fact no one put boot to ball more than the scrum-half’s 13 kicks.
However, it gave him a level of variety when he did so and allowed France to make the most of one of his many skills.
The France captain is one of a kind, arguably the best tackling No.9 in the game, while his ability to shake off even the biggest forwards is almost unrivalled.
On Saturday though, it was his ability to kick with both feet that drew gasps from the Twickenham faithful, once in the first half and once in the second.
The first intervention led to France’s second try, turning a comfortable 10-0 advantage into a near-unassailable 17-0 lead.
With France in possession around halfway, the options appeared to be minimal as they had to play off slow ball.
However, spotting that England’s two men in the backfield, Jack van Poortvliet and Freddie Steward, were trying to swap sides in order to give the latter more chance of getting under a high ball, Dupont pounced and fired off a 50:22 with his left boot, supposedly his weaker foot.
That led to Thibaud Flament’s first try and was a reminder that even when Dupont is kicking, he can provide the variety to keep the opposition guessing.
His most breath-taking moment might have come later in the game though, again thanks to his ability to kick off either foot.
By this point, the game was effectively won, France already 41-10 to the good. But with 15 minutes remaining, England were probing with Owen Farrell trying a little grubber through. Ntamack got back and threw the pass infield to where he knew the retreating Dupont would be.
The scrum-half collected the ball in his own 22, looked up to see Maro Itoje bearing down on him but with open field behind. He dropped the ball onto his right foot and chipped over the England lock, collecting the ball on the bounce on the England ten-metre line.
Then, after carrying past halfway, Dupont then used his left foot to push the ball forward with the perfect weight that forced Marcus Smith to carry the ball back over his own line and give France a five-metre scrum.
In the space of 15 seconds, Les Bleus had gone from being under pressure in their own 22, to a massive attacking opportunity, thanks to two kicks from their star man.
For Dupont, it is a far cry from his first appearance at Twickenham, back in 2019, when France were on the end of an equally sobering result, losing 44-8.
He came off the bench that day, putting on a show in 34 minutes as he made 90 metres, three line breaks and four offloads, despite the one-sided scoreline.
A fortnight later, he was promoted to the starting line-up to take on Scotland and he has never left it since (barring one World Cup pool match on a short turnaround).
In many ways, that defeat in 2019 was a turning point for French rugby. It was that game that convinced the FFR to bring in Galthié, initially as a consultant for coach Jacques Brunel, and then in the top job.
A look at the teams that day and you spot a host of players on the bench who were promoted to the starting line-up in the following weeks – Dupont, Ntamack, Alldritt, and more recently Ramos, Paul Willemse and for this match Dorian Aldegheri.
The parallels were not lost on those who featured in both games.
Ntamack explained: “I think there are a few players who played in the 2019 thrashing.
“We conceded 40 here and that was it, we really didn’t want to go through the same thing again.
“I guess it is true that the roles were reversed a little bit, but we didn’t necessarily expect to play a match like this, even if we had trained for it all week.
“I have to say that all the players were very good, everyone knew what they had to do and we were good from the first minute to the 80th minute.”
Just two men started both games for France, Gaël Fickou and Damian Penaud. The latter was still finding his feet at Test level, and scored his first Guinness Six Nations try that day, one of the few bright points on a miserable afternoon.
Roll the clock forward four years, and Penaud notched his 11th and 12th tries in the Championship, equalling and then overhauling Vincent Clerc as France’s most prolific finisher in the competition, at still only 26.
They came in the same corner as that 2019 try but rather than cutting a huge deficit, Penaud was adding the final touch to a stunning success.
After telling his team that they had been average so far, Galthié urged them that now was the moment to do something, to show what they were capable of doing.
They did that and more, tactically, physically and skilfully outplaying their hosts.
Four years on from one of the lowest moments in French rugby history, France’s renaissance has come full circle.