France return from their summer tour of New Zealand having failed to pick up a win, but with greater depth and cause for optimism going forwards.
While they were beaten in all three Tests, Les Bleus caused the world champions problems, leading at the half-time in the first encounter, keeping the second tight despite playing nearly 70 minutes a man down, and matching the All Blacks for most of the first half in Dunedin.
They will now enjoy a brief rest before the start of the new season, with South Africa, Argentina and Fiji heading to France in November.
After some promising results in the NatWest 6 Nations, in which they finished fourth, but were within a score in every game, now is the time for Jacques Brunel’s side to take a step forward. INCREASED DEPTH After a long season Brunel took the decision to give skipper Guilhem Guirado and flanker Wenceslas Lauret the summer off, while there were a number of other absentees through injury and suspension.
The likes of Sébastien Vahaamahina, Jefferson Poirot and the many absent half-backs – Maxime Machenaud, Antoine Dupont, Baptiste Couilloud, Camille Lopez, Matthieu Jalibert, Lionel Beauxis and François Trinh-Duc – left Brunel with holes to fill in his team.
Up front Dany Priso certainly took his chance at loosehead, starting each Test and holding his own against the All Blacks, while Bernard Le Roux continued his development in the second row, having only ever started one Test at lock before this tour.
As for the half-backs, Morgan Parra slotted back in seamlessly at scrum-half, even if his first game as captain was curtailed by injury, while Anthony Belleau underlined his status as a long-term option in the No.10 jersey.
Add in some strong displays from Mathieu Babillot and Kélian Galletier in the back row, as well as the welcome return to fitness of Wesley Fofana, a try-scorer in the third Test, and Brunel has some interesting selection decisions.
In Camille Chat and Pierre Bourgarit, he also has two options at hooker both in their early 20s, who are dynamic around the park and could ease the load on Guirado. LINEOUT AND DEFENSIVE WORK The main issue that emerged from the series was the French lineout, which struggled in each Test and hindered France’s hopes of taking advantage of any attacking positions.
Losing five throws on their own ball in each of the first two matches, Les Bleus improved in the third, winning eight of ten on their own ball, but as Chat explained, that number does not tell the whole story.
He said: “It was a bit better in the third Test, but we have to improve. We only lost two balls but we were never able to start our attack.
“Our ball horrible. We have to work on this sector, particularly how we move and our calls, to improve. Personally, I need to rectify a few details on my throws.”
As well as the lineout, France’s defence also came under pressure, having finished the NatWest 6 Nations as the best defence in the Championship in terms of tries conceded.
That was not the case in New Zealand, with 19 tries conceded in all, and Brunel will be keen to put that right in November.
THE NEXT GENERATION While the tour to New Zealand was tough for France, closer to home there was plenty of reason for optimism as France Under-20s were crowned world champions in Béziers.
After wins over Ireland, Georgia and South Africa in the group stages, Les Bleuets then claimed the scalps of New Zealand and England to lift the title, their first-ever in this age group.
FFR president Bernard Laporte said after the tournament that he expects some of the players to feature sooner rather than later for the senior side.
Who that will be remains to be seen, but 17-year-old Jordan Joseph was named Breakthrough Player of the Tournament for his performances in the back row, with fly-half Romain Ntamack, who was used in the centres in the latter stages, also nominated.
The 2019 Championship will likely come too soon for most of those players, but that success gives plenty of cause for cheer for Les Bleus fans in the coming years.