If 2020 was the year of the French renaissance, then 2021 served as confirmation that Les Bleus are back as a global force.
Silverware remains elusive, a second successive runners-up finish in the Guinness Six Nations was ultimately a disappointment, but there is no question that France are on the rise under Fabien Galthié.
Two years out from a home World Cup, the Stade de France is selling out, the team are running in tries for fun and a record win over New Zealand is perhaps the landmark result for this new staff.
Add to that the fact that this French team is still very young, and blessed with huge depth, and it is a great time to be a France fan.
Guinness Six Nations
A year after Les Bleus finished as runners-up to England, it was a case of déjà-vu, this time Wales the team to edge them to the title.
It all started brilliantly with a thumping 50-10 win in Italy as Antoine Dupont stole the show, setting up four tries and scoring one himself.
A week later and France ended their ten-year wait for a win in Dublin as they edged past Ireland 15-13 as tries from Charles Ollivon and Damian Penaud proved too much for Andy Farrell’s men.
At this stage, France looked like potential Grand Slam contenders, but a Covid-19 outbreak saw their next match against Scotland postponed, before England won a thriller at Twickenham 23-20 thanks to Maro Itoje’s late try, despite brilliant scores from Dupont and Penaud had given France a 17-13 half-time lead.
The Grand Slam hopes were over, but France remained in Championship contention when they denied Wales a clean sweep of their own, Brice Dulin going over with the clock in the red to snatch a 32-30 victory after France had trailed by ten points while a man down heading into the final ten minutes.
That left them needing a bonus-point success with a 20-point margin of victory over Scotland in their rearranged fixture to wrap up the title, but in the damp conditions at the Stade de France, that was never really on the cards. Instead, it was Duhan van der Merwe’s last-gasp try that gave Scotland a first win in Paris for more than two decades, 27-23.
Still, France finished second overall, as they had in the 2020 Championship and the Autumn Nations Cup.
France travelled to Australia in June with a much-changed squad. The Top 14 finalists were not available for the tour, meaning no players from Toulouse or La Rochelle – the likes of Dupont, Romain Ntamack and Grégory Alldritt.
In addition, Galthié made the decision to rest some of his most experienced players so in all 12 of the players who had started the final game of the Guinness Six Nations were absent.
Anthony Jelonch led a fresh-faced squad for a three-Test series against the Wallabies in which all three matches went down to the wire.
Despite low expectations and with six debutants, France led for most of the first Test thanks to Gabin Villière’s double. In fact they had possession of the ball and the lead with the clock in the red but could not get it off the field of play, leading to Australia regathering and eventually earning the penalty that Noah Lolesio converted to win 23-21.
It seemed like history would repeat itself six days later as Australia overcame another deficit to take the lead late on, but this time France had the final say, the impressive Melvyn Jaminet slotting a penalty to earn a 28-26 success.
However, it was Australia who emerged with the series victory, thanks once again to a late Lolesio penalty to swing a 33-30 win, despite Marika Koroibete’s early red card. France scored three tries including a beautiful long-range team score finished off by Pierre-Louis Barassi but fell just short in the end.
Autumn Nations Series
There was a sense of what might have been for France in the first half of the year, so they needed to finish on a high in the Autumn Nations Series, and they did just that with three wins over Argentina, Georgia and most importantly, the All Blacks.
The opening success against Argentina came after a major struggle, Les Bleus eventually running out 29-20 winners following tries from debutant Thibaud Flament and replacement hooker Peato Mauvaka.
Two more tries off the bench from Mauvaka, as well as a Penaud double, helped France to a comfortable 41-15 win over Georgia in Bordeaux.
And the pick of the performances came in Paris as France, captained by Antoine Dupont all autumn in the absence of the injured Charles Ollivon, beat the All Blacks 40-25.
Mauvaka went over twice in the first half, taking his tally for the autumn to five, with Ntamack going over in between as France led 24-6 at the break, New Zealand’s biggest half-time deficit ever.
The All Blacks came back to within two points in the second half before an Ntamack counter-attack from behind his own line sparked a France recovery, with Penaud’s interception try sealing the win.
Only two players featured in every game for France this year, Damian Penaud who started ten of 11 games and Romain Taofifenua who started five. Penaud also finished as the top try-scorer with seven and has re-established himself as one of the go-to men out wide after an injury-hit 2020.
While he did not travel to Australia, Antoine Dupont continues to emerge as one of the game’s current greats and could follow in the footsteps of Thierry Dusautoir and his coach Fabien Galthié in being named World Rugby Player of the Year next week. As well as being arguably the best scrum-half on the planet, he took over the captaincy in Ollivon’s absence and stepped up admirably in November.
Alongside him, Romain Ntamack’s performance against the All Blacks underlined his status as the first-choice option at fly-half, despite a strong year from Matthieu Jalibert with the Toulouse ten injured earlier in the year.
Anthony Jelonch and Cameron Woki both went from outside the 23 to starters by the autumn, the latter switching from the back row to lock and excelling in the unfamiliar role.
Likewise Peato Mauvaka was outstanding in his one start against New Zealand, having looked good as an impact player behind his club colleague Julien Marchand, who is a mainstay of the front row with Cyril Baille.
Gaël Fickou is probably the first name on the teamsheet in the three-quarters, and was effective whether he started at inside or outside centre, or even on the wing.
Lastly, a word for Melvyn Jaminet. The Perpignan full-back made his debut in Australia having never played a top-flight game or in front of a crowd of more than 1,000 due to Covid restrictions. He was nerveless there from the kicking tee and adds a real counter-attacking threat. He backed that up with a brilliant performance against the All Blacks and already has 89 points to his name at Test level.
As mentioned above, the key for France now will be to win some silverware after coming so close over the past two seasons.
The Guinness Six Nations sees them play host to both England and Ireland, the other two unbeaten teams in the Autumn Nations Series.
Those games are both sold out already, an indication of the interest building around the side and they will be huge challenges. Trips to Cardiff and Edinburgh will not be easy either, although France have won their most recent fixtures in both cities.
After that, there will be a trip to Japan for two Tests against the Brave Blossoms, but the priority is clearly to end the 12-year wait for a Championship title, and after the way they finished 2021, France clearly have the talent.