The Final Frontier: Galthie’s France aim to smash Twickenham hoodoo

France team huddle 11/2/2023
Fabien Galthié’s France have conquered every obstacle that has stood in their way over the past three years with the exception of one – Twickenham.

Fabien Galthié’s France have conquered every obstacle that has stood in their way over the past three years with the exception of one – Twickenham.

In year one of Galthié’s reign, Les Bleus claimed a first win in Cardiff in a decade, before ending a run of four straight losses in Edinburgh.

By the end of 2021, Dublin had fallen with Australia and New Zealand also defeated, and last, but by no means, least, world champions South Africa followed in 2022.

Add in the Grand Slam, and Galthié has ticked off all bar one objective ahead of a World Cup on home soil later this year.

All that remains is a victory at Twickenham. Les Bleus have played there twice since the last World Cup, and twice come very close to winning.

First, a largely second-string side led with the clock in the red before being pushed into extra-time and eventually falling to defeat in the Autumn Nations Cup final at the end of 2020.

Then in 2021, in one of the games of the Championship, Maro Itoje’s try four minutes from time got England home once again in a 23-20 success.

So while every game is important, you can be sure that this Round 4 trip to take on Steve Borthwick’s England has been circled in the calendars for some time.

In fact, defence coach Shaun Edwards, admitted as much while speaking on BBC 5 Live’s Rugby Union Daily earlier in the Championship.

He highlighted that France had not won at Twickenham in a long time. It was no coincidence that when he was interviewed after the Round 3 win over Scotland, he had found out just exactly how long it had been.

Edwards said after the Scotland game: “We’ll have a beer, because it’s been a tough couple of weeks. Losing (in Ireland) was an unusual thing to feel and not a very pleasant one, but then we’ll be planning for Twickenham. We’ve not won there, apparently, since 2005, so that’s a big challenge for us.”

Technically, France have won at Twickenham more recently than 2005 – but that was their last Championship success at the ground.

Dimitri Yachvili was the hero that day, kicking all six penalties in an 18-17 success.

Since then, England have won seven straight home Guinness Six Nations clashes with Les Bleus. France have enjoyed some good moments – Wesley Fofana (2013) and Vincent Debaty (2015) each scored sensational tries that rank up there with Philippe Saint-André’s greatest-ever Twickenham try (1991) – but all three of those came in defeats.

In terms of wins, in 2007 France won a World Cup warm-up game at Twickenham, while in 2015, their opening World Cup pool game at the home of rugby was a victory over Italy.

As a result, Gaël Fickou is the sole France player to have won a Test match at the ground, but there are others who will have fond memories of trips to south-west London.

Galthié led a French-flavoured Barbarians side, captained by Charles Ollivon, that romped to a 52-21 win over England at Twickenham last year, while the strong Toulouse contingent in the squad won a fifth Heineken Champions Cup trophy at the ground in 2021.

In fact, for François Cros, the likely replacement for Anthony Jelonch in the starting line-up, Twickenham only holds positive memories.

He explained: “It is one of the strongholds of rugby. I’ve only played there once, in the Champions Cup final but never with the France team. It’s very exciting.”

Under Galthié, France have been very good at targeting a major game and delivering on the day.

In 2021, everything was geared towards peaking for the All Blacks in their final game of the Autumn Nations Series.

While the game ebbed and flowed, France ended up claiming a memorable 40-25 success, their biggest-ever win over New Zealand.

Then last year, in addition to the Grand Slam, there was a clear objective to come away from the only meeting with world champions South Africa in this World Cup cycle with a win.

It did not come easy, with Les Bleus trailing heading into the final ten minutes before Sipili Falatea’s late try in a 30-26 victory.

So although the World Cup later this year is the biggest objective, you can be sure that Galthié, Edwards and the rest, have a lot riding on Saturday.

What is more, they will head to Twickenham with a number of players set to return. While Jelonch’s campaign ended with his torn ACL against Scotland, matchday 23 regulars Peato Mauvaka and Maxime Lucu have a good chance of making their first appearances of the campaign after recovering from injury.

Centre Jonathan Danty, a standout in last year’s Slam, is another who is back in the squad after getting over a knee injury of his own. If he is deemed ready, his potential with Ollie Lawrence in the midfield should be titanic – the young England centre having caught the eye of his next opponents.

Cros, speaking to L’Equipe, added: “It will be very difficult. England had a slow start to the Championship, no doubt because of their change of coaching staff. But they seem to be hitting their stride and improving.

“They have a strong pack, with a very active front row, a back row that is good at slowing down ball and in the backs they have some really interesting players with the No.12 (Ollie Lawrence) has made a brilliant start to the tournament, and Freddie Steward who is very good under the high ball.”

Cros is right that since that opening loss to Scotland, England have certainly improved. Their rolling maul wreaked havoc against Italy, and France will be well-advised to work on that during the week.

And with Les Bleus coming in for some questions over their kicking game in the opening three rounds, they will need to find some answers against a Borthwick side that already look very comfortable in that area.

A year on from a Crunch in which France clinched a Grand Slam and enjoyed perhaps their greatest moment under Galthié, now they have a final frontier to conquer.