Feel-good factor around France squad

Bernard Le Roux
There was one moment that told the story of France’s win over Wales and the collective effort it took to end the ten-year wait for success in Cardiff.

There was one moment that told the story of France’s win over Wales and the collective effort it took to end the ten-year wait for success in Cardiff.

From a lineout five metres from the Wales line, France shaped to set up a maul before quickly transferring the ball back to Paul Willemse who was peeling around.

The powerful lock found himself one on one with Wales winger Johnny McNicholl and powered straight through him on the way to his maiden Test try.

As the camera panned up to the French coaching box, both Fabien Galthié and team manager Raphaël Ibanez were congratulating lineout coach Karim Ghezal.

The former Montauban, Racing 92 and Lyon lock is a key part of this new-look French coaching staff, and had drawn up the perfect move to get France over.

He is one of the lower-profile members of the coaching staff that features two former France captains in Galthié and Ibanez, Grand Slam-winning hooker William Servat, not to mention Shaun Edwards back in the country where he built his reputation as one of the best defence coaches in Test rugby.

However so much of this France team has been about building something more than just the stars.

There are stars, of that there is no question. Antoine Dupont is justifiably being considered among the best scrum-halves in the world, if not the best.

At 20, his half-back colleague, Romain Ntamack is already thriving on the biggest stage and enjoyed arguably his best match in blue to date.

But what has been just as impressive in this French team is the way the lesser lights have stepped up.

Beyond Ghezal in the coaching booth, it is Bernard le Roux, the former flanker turned lock who has gone from being seen as a useful utility option to the engine of the French pack.

Anthony Bouthier was the third best full-back in the Dax youth set-up and initially did not even plan on playing professionally. On Saturday, like Willemse, he scored his first Test try, and produced a display that vindicated Galthié’s decision to select the 27-year-old after half a year of top-flight rugby.

Le Roux even admitted that he had planned to call time on his Test career after last year’s World Cup. He had told his wife that he was going to call it a day in the build-up to the tournament in Japan, but there he realised that something was being built in the squad.

It was no coincidence that Le Roux was chosen to take photos of the coaching staff on the pitch at Principality Stadium after the game.

Those images, and the footage of the French team celebrating to Italian Europop anthem Freed from Desire in the changing rooms after the match, are evidence of a squad that is thriving.

The wins of course help.

This France team is the youngest in the Championship by a distance. On Saturday they faced the most experienced team in Guinness Six Nations history.

It did not faze them.

The insouciance of youth. Just four men had previously played in the intimidating atmosphere of Principality Stadium, but rather than be cowed by the occasion, the young French team flourished.

To prepare, the players had taken the unusual approach of presenting the jerseys among themselves, rather than by the coaching staff.

Willemse explained in the Midi Olympique: “Usually it is the coaching staff who do it, but when it is the guy next to you who gives it to you, it means more.”

Le Roux gave 20-year-old Arthur Vincent his jersey: “I told him I was proud of him and knew he had the character to play a great game.”

Vincent certainly did. The first Test player born after Principality Stadium was officially opened to play in the ground. He led the French defensive effort and even made the last-gasp tackle that allowed Camille Chat to seal the victory.

This France team is still very young and still has margin for improvement. However Le Roux is right when he says something is building.