Scouting out France: Familiar foes and an All Black test

There is no question that France are a team on the rise but Fabien Galthié knows that it is time for his team to back that up with silverware.

There is no question that France are a team on the rise but Fabien Galthié knows that it is time for his team to back that up with silverware.

After consecutive runners-up spots in the 2020 and 2021 Guinness Six Nations, either side of an extra-time defeat in the final of the Autumn Nations Cup, France will be desperate to win the 2022 Championship.

Before that, they have a fascinating Autumn Nations Series schedule including a clash with the All Blacks in Paris that stands out as one of the matches of the season.

What you need to know

With 35 tries over the past two Championships, France have established themselves as an attacking force to be reckoned with. What is most impressive is how efficient they have become, taking their opportunities when they get into the opposition 22 at an exceptionally high rate.

This summer, Galthié named a much-changed squad for a tour of Australia, with Top 14 finalists from Toulouse and La Rochelle absent, while a number of other key players were also rested.

Despite the absence of the vast majority of first-team players, Les Bleus played out a thrilling trio of games, eventually losing 2-1 in a series that saw the two teams separated by just three points over the course of 240 minutes.

Having come so close to winning the Autumn Nations Cup in similar circumstances, it was another example of the depth being built in the French game, with 13 players earning their first caps on the tour.

Captain and coach

Fabien Galthié has been the man in charge of Les Bleus since the start of 2020 and his arrival coincided with an uptick in performances.

The former France scrum-half and captain is regarded as a savvy tactician and has surrounded himself with a strong team of coaches including Shaun Edwards, who runs the defence, and former Racing boss Laurent Labit, who has been responsible for some of the strike moves that have caught the eye this year.

Charles Ollivon had served as Galthié’s captain up to this point, but a knee injury suffered at the end of last season will see him miss the autumn fixtures.

That leaves an interesting selection decision for Galthié. Anthony Jelonch led the team in Australia and won plenty of credit for his displays, but with all the first-choice players back, his place in the hierarchy is not as certain.

Gaël Fickou is the most capped member of the squad and is now skipper at Racing 92, while No.8 Grégory Alldritt is another contender – he was in line to captain France against Scotland earlier this year before the match was postponed.

Toulouse pair Julien Marchand and Antoine Dupont have also been suggested, so Galthié has a big call to make in the coming weeks.

Ones to watch

Matthis Lebel

Fabien Galthié has used 67 players so far since taking charge of Les Bleus, having originally hoped to use just 50 over the World Cup cycle. Covid restrictions and club/country agreements have played a large part in that, and we could see a couple more caps this November. The most likely of those is Toulouse winger Matthis Lebel – a two-time under-20s world champion who was Toulouse’s top try-scorer in their double-winning campaign last year. With Teddy Thomas potentially absent because of a hamstring injury, and wing a position in flux for France, Lebel looks a prime candidate to stake a claim this autumn.

Mohamed Haouas

Mohamed Haouas was one of the surprise inclusions in Galthié’s first France squad and the tighthead prop did not help his cause when he was sent off in the sole defeat of the 2020 Guinness Six Nations in Scotland. Galthié has kept faith with the Montpellier tighthead though, and has been rewarded with some fine scrummaging and handy carrying around the park. Demba Bamba had some strong moments in Australia and Uini Atonio has been excellent for La Rochelle, so this could be a big November for Haouas if he wants to cement his place as France’s first-choice tighthead.

Matthieu Jalibert

The biggest call for Galthié this autumn will be at fly-half, where he has two players in supreme form. Romain Ntamack looked to be nailed on as first-choice for Les Bleus after a fine 2020, but injury opened the door for Matthieu Jalibert, who was outstanding in the 2021 Championship. As an attacking force, there are few who can combine Jalibert’s vision, acceleration and swagger. There have been some calls to try and fit he and Ntamack into the same team, which is more likely to come in the second half of matches than from the off, but regardless of how is used, Jalibert should be a joy to watch this November.

Upcoming fixtures

France have a trio of matches this November as Argentina, Georgia and New Zealand head over. There will be plenty of familiarity in the first two fixtures with a large proportion of the Pumas’ and Lelos’ squad plying their trade in the Top 14.

The game against Argentina will be the first meeting between the sides since the 2019 Rugby World Cup where a late Camille Lopez drop goal earned France a pool victory that ended up being enough to get out of the pool at Argentina’s expense. Both teams have changed considerably since then, so the game should be an intriguing start in Paris.

Georgia are next up, a year after the teams had been due to meet in November. Where previously, Georgian props were everywhere in France, there is now a wider variety of Georgian talent in the Top 14, including Brive half-back pairing Vasil Lobzhanidze and Tedo Abzhandadze.

Lastly, the All Blacks are in town for a preview of the opening game of the 2023 World Cup in France. In Antoine Dupont, France have one of the form players on the planet, dubbed the world’s best scrum-half by none other than Aaron Smith, who he would likely face at the Stade de France. It has been 12 years since France last beat the All Blacks, and 21 since they did so on French soil, so a success against New Zealand would be a huge boost for the side ahead of the 2022 Guinness Six Nations.

Autumn schedule

France v Argentina, Paris, November 6, kick-off: 9pm (local time) France v Georgia, Bordeaux, November 14, kick-off: 2pm (local time) France v New Zealand, Paris, November 20, kick-off: 9pm (local time)