In two years under Fabien Galthié, France have twice finished as runners-up in the Guinness Six Nations, beaten the Wallabies in Australia for the first time in 31 years and defeated New Zealand by three scores.
There is absolutely no question as to what the next objective must be – a first Championship crown in 12 years.
Tipped as the team to beat by both Eddie Jones and Kieran Crowley coming into this year’s Guinness Six Nations, the pressure is well and truly on.
Arguably no side heads into their campaign with more of a ‘win or bust’ sense around them, both because of the schedule, and those successive second places.
But Les Bleus have every reason to be confident. For starters, they simply need to look back to their most recent meeting with each opponent in the grounds where they will play this year – on each occasion they were victorious. In the case of England, Ireland and Wales, in the 2020 Championship, and against Italy in Paris and Scotland at BT Murrayfield, in the Autumn Nations Cup later that year.
Of course, that in itself does not mean a huge amount, but France have unquestionably become a force under Galthié.
In skipper Antoine Dupont, they have the reigning World Player of the Year, with the scrum-half leading a strong Toulouse contingent that claimed a European and domestic double last season.
If there is one concern about the team, it may be that Toulouse link. France’s most successful club were irresistible last season but have been out of sorts in recent weeks, not helped by a number of postponements due to Covid-19.
How that affects the likes of Dupont is worth keeping an eye on as they head into an opener against Italy on Sunday at the Stade de France. He played his first game in a month and a half last week against Racing 92 and will not be completely match-fit against the Azzurri.
EVOLUTION OF THE TEAM
Galthié has described this team as France version six, evolving with every international block, and if the most recent performance is anything to go by, the side is improving on each occasion.
The win over New Zealand showed two sides to France. In the first half, a near-unstoppable force, deadly from rolling maul, able to break the gainline regularly and as clinical as ever when in the 22.
After a huge momentum shift at the start of the second half, where the All Blacks cut an 18-point half-time deficit to just two points by the hour, France also showed a level of resilience to pull away once again.
That should give the team confidence, but big questions will come when Les Bleus find themselves in a close match. Of the six defeats that France have suffered under Galthié, five have been in games where they have either led or been level with two minutes remaining in the match.
The above does not mean they cannot win close games, Wales fans will not need reminding of the crazy comeback in Paris a year ago to deny Wayne Pivac’s side the Grand Slam.
ROLE OF THE FINISHERS
But it does show that France have not always been able to close out the tight finishes. That is no doubt a reason why Galthié has focused so much on his finishers over the last six months.
It was a point of emphasis for him in November, and again coming into the Guinness Six Nations.
As Jones famously pointed out during the 2019 Rugby World Cup, modern rugby is a 23-man game. In training France regularly now run end-of-game scenarios to try to avoid any late heartbreak, while the likes of Peato Mauvaka and Demba Bamba are seen as players who can have a huge influence off the bench.
That is possible because of the depth at Galthié’s disposal. Even without regular captain Charles Ollivon, former France Under-20s skipper Arthur Vincent and the electric Teddy Thomas, Les Bleus will name a 23 tomorrow that is packed with talent.
The question now for Galthié and his coaching staff, is whether they have hit on the right combination to ensure that version six brings home the first silverware of this new era.