Story of the 2018 NatWest 6 Nations: France

France finished the 2018 NatWest 6 Nations fourth in table after a campaign in which every one of their games was closely contested.

France finished the 2018 NatWest 6 Nations fourth in table after a campaign in which every one of their games was closely contested.

Led by their inspirational captain Guilhem Guirado, the French steadily improved as the Championship progressed, with the likes of Yacouba Camara, Mathieu Bastareaud and Maxime Machenaud all standing out.

Click here for the final 2018 NatWest 6 Nations table

Here is the story of a French campaign that left plenty of positives to build on:   France had a new head coach for the 2018 NatWest 6 Nations, with the experienced Jacques Brunel taking over from Guy Noves in December.

This came after a difficult autumn that saw them lose to New Zealand and South Africa before being surprisingly held to a 23-23 draw by Japan.

Brunel was no stranger to coaching in the Championship, of course, having been in charge of Italy from 2012 to 2016, during which the Azzurri had got the better of France at the Stadio Olimpico in 2013, while he also worked as an assistant for France alongside Bernard Laporte.

Les Bleus’ last title came in their Grand Slam year of 2010, but with a set of exciting new players about to be blooded, hopes were high that they could build on the previous year’s third-place finish.

Guirado said at the NatWest 6 Nations launch: “There is a turnover in terms of the coaching team and the players.

“There’s a new generation coming through and I hope in this year’s NatWest 6 Nations that the new generation step up.”

France 13-15 Ireland

Brunel included talented 19-year-old Matthieu Jalibert at fly-half in his first-ever starting XV, as a much-fancied Ireland visited the Stade de France.

Unfortunately, Jalibert’s debut lasted just half an hour before he was forced off with a serious knee injury that ended his Championship, but his teammates did a fine job in frustrating the Irish.

A tight game of few try-scoring opportunities suddenly burst into life with eight minutes left when winger Teddy Thomas scorched his way past three defenders for a brilliant try that put France 13-12 ahead.

The hosts looked like they had done enough, but after Ireland kept the ball for a staggering 41 phases in what was the final play, Johnny Sexton landed a 45-metre drop goal to snatch victory.

Centre Remi Lamerat said: “We cannot say that they stole their victory, far from it.

“We have seen all the experience, the mastery of this nation that is Ireland; one last play and no error….that’s what separates us from the big nations today.”

Scotland 32-26 France

The loss of Kevin Gourdon to injury in the Ireland game was seen as a blow, but it presented a big opportunity to Marco Tauleigne at No.8 and it was one he grasped impressively in the rest of the Championship.

He was one of the players brought in for the trip to Scotland, as was fly-half Lionel Beauxis, who was making his return to international rugby six years after winning his previous cap.

Thomas picked up at BT Murrayfield where he had left off against Ireland by scoring two more superb individual tries, as France went into half-time with a 20-14 lead.

But the Scots fought back in the second half, with Greig Laidlaw outscoring Baptiste Serin by six penalties to two leave Les Bleus to reflect on another narrow defeat.

Brunel said: “I want to remember the positives of these two matches. We were in a position to be able to change the outcome.

“We knew the quality of Scotland and their performances over the past two or three years but we have shown we can compete – we must remember that.”

France 34-17 Italy

In what was the first-ever NatWest 6 Nations match at Marseille’s Orange Stade Vélodrome, Brunel named a much-changed backline that included Hugo Bonneval, Benjamin Fall and Rémy Grosso.

But it was the return of Mathieu Bastareaud that would make all the difference as his powerful carries and his big tackling made him stand out in his first appearance in the Championship for three years.

The giant centre rounded off France’s first win of the campaign by scoring their third try of the night, following earlier scores by Paul Gabrillagues – his first at Test level – and Bonneval.

They may have found the Italians hard to shake off, but this was a vital result for France, as it was their first victory since defeating Wales in the final day of the 2017 Championship.

Guirado said: “Seriously, after a year, it feels good. We have gone through a lot, we are not going to turn our noses up at it. We have happy to have won again.

“But we aren’t stupid, we are frustrated by the game. We didn’t pick up the bonus point despite the fact we could have got it at the end.”

France 22-16 England

England turned up at the Stade de France needing a bonus-point win in order to keep Ireland from winning the NatWest 6 Nations with a game to spare, but they reckoned without a resilient home side.

Three penalties each from each side meant the score was locked at 9-9 at half-time, but France seized control of the game when they were awarded a penalty try for a high tackle by Anthony Watson on Fall.

Further penalties by Machenaud and Beauxis kept their noses in front, but a late try by England’s Jonny May set up a grandstand finish.

There was no repeat of the heartbreak Les Bleus suffered against Ireland, however, as the visitors’ pressure was repelled and a first victory over the English for three years could be celebrated.

“When you see the joy of the players at the end, you can sense their pride at representing their country,” said Guirado, who was outstanding in the game.

“We will enjoy this win. It doesn’t happen that often that we beat England.”

Wales 14-13 France

After the uncertainty surrounding the team in the lead-up to the Championship, France went into their final match with the chance of a third straight win, but they would have to do so without the injured Guirado.

Bastareaud captained them at Principality Stadium in his absence and the French responded well to conceding an early Liam Williams try by hitting back through Gael Fickou, who had replaced Fall on the right wing.

Yet again, Les Bleus found themselves in a match that was balanced on a knife-edge and they almost went ahead in the second half when Francois Trinh-Duc sent a penalty wide.

But in a reversal of fortunes from their win over England, they could not make the most of late possession as Wales held on to avenge their defeat from last year’s epic finish in Paris.

But Bastareaud was proud of the way France had finished their campaign, saying: “What’s true is that over the last three matches that was a real change in the team and the way we carried ourselves.

“Before that we looked like losers, every defeat was just another defeat.

“But we knew we needed to turn that around which we managed to do against Italy and that match against England was even more important.”