Analysis: Turbulent November shifts France focus to Six Nations

Cory Hill with Paul Gabrillagues and Mathieu Babillot 17/3/2018
The 2019 Six Nations offers France the chance to revive their fortunes at a crucial moment after a turbulent November.

The 2019 Six Nations offers France the chance to revive their fortunes at a crucial moment after a turbulent November.

Les Bleus showed glimpses of their class in the first half against South Africa, holding a 23-9 lead over the world number five side, only to be cruelly denied on the final play in Paris.

They then roused reserves of resilience to roar back from behind and dispatch Argentina, unfurling some irresistible running rugby with two-try Teddy Thomas to the fore.

Despite using the autumn to regain clarity on the spine of their side, the 2010 Grand Slam winners couldn’t stem the tide of a buoyant Fiji in their final Test.

If their performance in the first 40 minutes against the Springboks was anything to go by, Jacques Brunel prepared his charges immaculately for the challenge facing them.

They let the game slide away from them in the second half against Rassie Erasmus’ men but did no such thing against the Pumas who were shut out after taking the lead within a minute.

The lessons learned from the Fiji reverse shouldn’t be shirked.

Equally this trio of Tests provide further evidence the French retain attacking verve – meaning anything is possible in the 2019 Six Nations and beyond.

Stand-out players

Guilhem Guirado always saves his best for the Six Nations, so four tries in three November outings simply served notice of the France captain’s clout at the highest level.

The hooker was a crucial figure in both his country’s wins in the 2018 Championship, shepherding his pack to primacy in wins over England and Italy.

Guirado’s solid lineout throw is complemented by the ability to sniff out the gain line and pack a real punch in the contact area.

His tries against South Africa and Argentina came at crucial times – the first, a snipe from the back of a maul, helping Les Bleus put their dominance on the scoreboard.

The following week the 32-year-old’s opportunistic effort from just over five metres out turned an eight-point lead over the Pumas to a 15-point chasm.

Camille Lopez came in from the cold after 18 months away, knowing he had perhaps his final chance to lay a claim on the number ten jersey.

Lionel Beauxis, Francois Trinh-Duc and Matthieu Jalibert were all given the reins during the 2018 Six Nations and Anthony Belleau started all three June Tests against New Zealand.

Against the Springboks, Lopez displayed all the authority demanded by the role; kicking an adroit drop goal and nearly finding Damien Penaud with an audacious cross-field kick.

The spine of the French side looks even more settled with Lopez at its heart, while Louis Picamoles’ recall reminded Brunel of his pure ball-carrying power in the loose.

In the back division Teddy Thomas, who memorably scored three tries in the first two rounds of the 2018 Six Nations, was at his blistering best in running in two against Argentina.

Breakout stars

Brunel didn’t opt for many bolters in his squad for the November Tests, choosing to largely pick from settled combinations.

Mathieu Babillot, 25, continues to keep his back-row rivals, such as incumbents Wenceslas Lauret and Arthur Iturria, on their toes with impactful displays from the bench.

But one of the few bonuses from the Fiji game came in the long-awaited debut of 20-year-old prop Demba Bamba – who promises to have a big impact on the international stage.

French rugby changed dramatically last summer when the Under-20 side swooped to victory in the World Rugby Championship, on top of the Under-20s Six Nations Championship last spring, and Bamba is the first of their number to break through.

The likes of Jordan Joseph, Romain Ntamack, Clément Laporte and Louis Carbonel are yet to come, but his Test bow leaves Bamba poised to impress as early as the 2019 Six Nations.

What they said

Head coach Jacques Brunel said: “(South Africa) are very strong, with a very big defence, which squeezes you.

“We managed to break out and reverse the pressure. We succeeded in forcing errors and get ourselves ahead.

“We showed a lot of control over the whole game even if I was unhappy with the last four minutes.

“The team responded very well after taking the first score against Argentina.

“We are satisfied on the one hand because we won and on the other hand because of the way we won that game.

“It’s hard to see a positive side (of the Fiji game) but I want to believe this is not what we are capable of.

“We showed something much better against South Africa and Argentina.

“We will try to review what has happened and understand our shortcomings. We are well aware that this defeat serves as a lesson.”