Anyone who has been watching international rugby over the last few years has seen this French renaissance coming.
And this Saturday, Les Bleus hope to back up their unquestioned talent with some silverware as they go for the Grand Slam against England.
Since Fabien Galthié took over as the head coach ahead of the 2020 Guinness Six Nations, France have never finished lower than second in the table, while they have also ended long waits for wins in Cardiff, Dublin and Australia, not to mention that landmark success against the All Blacks last November.
Most of the credit should go to the players, a talented generation who appear to be fulfilling their potential.
But it is also important to factor in the influence of the French coaching staff, a group who have worked tirelessly, both with and without the players to ensure this is the best-prepared France team ever.
Compare to even as recently as five years ago when a French staff would consist of the head coach, a forwards coach and a backs coach.
Now, every base is covered and the impact has been evident for all to see.
The group work closely both during the international periods and outside them, spending time learning to coach, as Galthié puts it, during sessions with amateur clubs or youth teams in which they try to improve their own skills.
The coaches also put together three lists each week, a starting XV, a matchday 23 and a wider squad of 42, with those lists evolving constantly whether the players are on international duty or not.
Despite that, France have been very consistent in their selection during this year’s Championship, with only one tactical change throughout the entire campaign – François Cros replacing Dylan Cretin in the back row after the win over Italy, as well as three injury-enforced changes. That stability has been crucial to the French momentum.
It has been possible to get real insight into the workings of the coaching staff through the FFR’s YouTube series Destins Mêlés, with an episode after every game that shows some of the preparation for the encounter as well clips inside the dressing room before the game and at half-time.
That is how we have been able to see Shaun Edwards hammering home the importance of the offside line in defence before the win over Ireland, or Laurent Labit talking about how to move Stuart Hogg around in the Scottish 22 using the kicking game.
With his three Grand Slams during his time as Wales defence coach, Edwards’ name comes up regularly when discussing the emergence of this French side, but what of the others who have made the difference behind the scenes?
The coaches behind the team:
The head coach and the man who has the final say on selection, Fabien Galthié was widely regarded as one of the most astute technical minds in France. A scrum-half who won three Grand Slams and went to four World Cups in his playing days, he captained his country and set incredibly high standards. As a coach he enjoyed success at Stade Français and Montpellier but has also been keen to travel to broaden his horizons, whether that is spending time in Argentina with Los Pumas or Eddie Jones and England.
Like Galthié, Raphaël Ibanez (pictured with Thibault Giroud) captained his country before going into coaching. Now the team manager, he is the yin to Galthié’s yang, the facilitator who is perhaps more of a man manager. Immediately prior to taking the French job, he spent time in New Zealand coaching in the domestic second division but trying to understand the culture in an attempt to bring back a vision of what the French set-up should look like.
One of the more underrated members of the French coaching staff, attack coach Laurent Labit has been hugely influential since coming on board to help prepare for the 2019 World Cup alongside Galthié – then an assistant. He and Galthié work hand-in-hand on the French attack, with Labit behind some of the set-plays that have caught the eye, notably Damian Penaud’s brilliant try at Twickenham last year. Prior to working with France, Labit worked with Laurent Travers for more than a decade, at Montauban, Castres and then Racing 92, enjoying success on every stop.
The other extreme to Labit, perhaps no coach has received more coverage than Shaun Edwards, but with good reason. The former rugby league star has enhanced his reputation as one of, if not the best defence coach on the planet. Determined to speak in French from the start, he has worked hard on his language skills since moving across to France and you could not ask for greater proof of his impact than Friday’s win over Wales when the home side were kept tryless in Cardiff despite dominating both possession and territory.
France’s lineout guru, Karim Ghezal arrived from Lyon with the reputation as one of the top lineout coaches in the Top 14, and that has translated to the international stage. As with every team, the lineout has been one of France’s biggest attacking weapons, with Charles Ollivon and Cameron Woki serving as Ghezal’s go-to men in the lineout. After a few hiccups against Wales in Cardiff, Ghezal will be a busy man this week preparing for Maro Itoje and company. As a player, he played for both Montauban and Racing 92 under Labit.
Having served as France’s starting hooker for each of their past two Grand Slams, William Servat is now looking to become a Grand Slam winner as a coach. His role with France is as scrum coach, an area where France have been particularly strong in the past three years. Under his guidance, Cyril Baille, Julien Marchand and Uini Atonio have become a formidable unit, with some crucial scrum penalties making the difference in the wins over Ireland and Wales.
No member of the French coaching staff has had quite as colourful a journey as Thibault Giroud, the director of performance and the main fitness coach for the team. From American football to competing at the Olympics in bobsleigh, not to mention coaching sprinting legend Frankie Fredericks, Giroud has done it all. In rugby he has spent time in Scotland, England and South Africa. He joined the French set-up prior to the 2019 World Cup alongside Galthié and has been instrumental in the improved fitness levels of the squad, notably with the notorious high-intensity training session once a week in which the players train at 120% of match intensity.
Jérôme Garcès capped off his refereeing career by taking charge of the 2019 World Cup final, and then in 2021 linked up with the French team to help work on the side’s discipline. He was brought in on a full-time basis later that year and has worked on hard on ensuring France concede fewer penalties, with the 38 whistled against them second fewest behind Italy, while Les Bleus have not received a yellow or a red card in the campaign.
A former teammate of Fabien Galthié when the French coach played for Western Province in South Africa, Vlok Cilliers came on board as the kicking coach in 2020. As the side who put boot to ball more than any other, Cilliers has a hugely important role in ensuring that those kicks are effective, not aimless. Working with Romain Ntamack, Antoine Dupont and Melvyn Jaminet, in particular, Cilliers has helped France’s kicking game become a real strength, just three years after a 44-5 defeat at Twickenham in which England were able to dominate almost entirely because of their tactical kicking.