France waited a long time to get back to the summit of the Guinness Six Nations but now the challenge is even greater as they seek to follow up last year’s Grand Slam with another success.
Les Bleus trailed for just 13 minutes across the entirety of the 2022 Championship, even if they were pushed hard for periods in every game.
Now, with daunting trips to Dublin to take on the world’s number one side, and Twickenham, the only fortress they have yet to conquer under Fabien Galthié, this will be a huge test a matter months out from a home World Cup.
With a few injuries to key men, notably lock Cameron Woki and centre Jonathan Danty, France’s depth will be tested.
Were they to make history and record back-to-back Grand Slams – a feat not yet achieved in the Six Nations era, with France the last to do it back in 1997 and 1998 – France would also equal the world record for successive victories in men’s international rugby at 18.
Game plan: A combination of pragmatism and individual genius
With a powerful pack, scintillating outside backs and perhaps the best young half-back pairing in the world, France have all the ingredients of a top-quality outfit.
Under Fabien Galthié, a hallmark of their game has been their tactical discipline, rarely playing expansive rugby in their own half, but then lifting the tempo as soon as it is clear that there is an opportunity. With the likes of Damian Penaud, Gaël Fickou and of course, Antoine Dupont, they have players who can create something out of nothing, and Les Bleus are also incredibly clinical, rarely needing more than three or four phases to convert a chance into a try.
Coach: Fabien Galthié
The former France skipper turned his hand to coaching in the mid-2000s, leading Stade Français to the French title in his first job. Widely-regarded as one of the best technical coaches in the game in France, it was the human element that Galthié sometimes struggled with.
In combination with fellow former France captain Raphaël Ibanez, and working with the best players in the country, Galthié seems to have got to grips with that aspect of the role. He heads up a top-class coaching staff that also includes serial Grand Slam winner Shaun Edwards, in charge of the defence, long-time Racing 92 boss Laurent Labit for the backs, and Grand Slam-winning hooker William Servat, in charge of the scrum, among others.
Under Galthié, France finished second in both 2020 and 2021, before ending a 12-year wait for a title last year.
Captain: Antoine Dupont
Charles Ollivon was Galthié’s first captain when he took over in 2020 but when a serious knee injury ruled him out for a year, Antoine Dupont got the task of replacing him.
Under Dupont, France are still unbeaten, having seen off the four Rugby Championship sides, as well as winning the Grand Slam in a remarkable 12-month stretch.
The defending Guinness Six Nations Player of the Championship – his second such award – is more of a leader by example, combining outstanding basics with skills that most scrum-halves in the world envy.
Dupont’s support lines, including to score the clinching try in the Grand Slam game in Paris last year, are becoming legendary, while he possesses the strength of a back-rower and arguably the longest kicking game of any No.9 in the world.
Star man: Grégory Alldritt
Let’s be honest, this is probably Dupont. But any chance to talk about how incredible Grégory Alldritt is, should not be sniffed at. Last year, he was one of France’s most important players as they won the Grand Slam and then helped La Rochelle to an unlikely Heineken Champions Cup title.
It is hard to think of many more complete No.8s, Alldritt is France’s go-to carrier, is an absolute menace at the breakdown and is ferocious in defence. He also has deft hands, as demonstrated by the little offload to Dupont – his former teammate at Auch – in that Grand Slam clash.
Breakthrough candidate: Ethan Dumortier
With Villière and Danty both out, there is a spot that has opened up in the France three-quarter line. It looks like Ethan Dumortier, the Lyon winger, might be the man to fill it, with Yoram Moefana set to start in the centres.
A fringe member of the France Under-20s team that retained the world title in 2019, Dumortier has taken a little while to break through at the highest level. This year though, he has been outstanding for Lyon, racking up eight tries in the Top 14 already, the most of any player, while he showed his versatility with a two-try showing while playing full-back in Europe against Saracens. If early training indications are anything to go by, it seems Dumortier might have leapfrogged Matthis Lebel in the pecking order for the final spot in the France backline.
Unsung hero: Uini Atonio
At nearly two metres tall and the best part of 150kg, Uini Atonio does not exactly go under the radar. But his progression over the past couple of years certainly has. There are few, if any players, who are more consistent in the set-piece, with Atonio’s scrummaging causing every loosehead who faces him all sorts of bother. And that was not even his strength when he first burst onto the scene, Atonio is at his happiest with ball in hand.
He might not have Tadhg Furlong’s wide passing game, or Frans Malherbe’s set-piece reputation, but there are few more important players than Atonio for France, and few tightheads better.
2022 performance: Grand Slam champions
An opening win in damp conditions against Italy, 37-10, set France on their way to a first title and Grand Slam in 12 years.
They followed it up by beating Ireland in Paris, with a brilliant first-half display in a 30-24 success.
Away wins in Scotland, 36-17, and Wales, 13-9, put them on the brink of the Slam, with England heading to Paris looking to deny them.
Despite a few obvious nerves in the first half, France proved too strong, with Alldritt and Dupont combining to finish the job as they ran out 25-13 winners.
Les Bleus followed that up with a 2-0 series win in Japan and a perfect autumn, beating Australia, world champions South Africa, and then Japan again, to make it ten from ten and 13 consecutive wins.
15 Thomas Ramos, 14 Damian Penaud, 13 Gaël Fickou, 12 Yoram Moefana, 11 Ethan Dumortier, 10 Romain Ntamack, 9 Antoine Dupont (captain), 1 Cyril Baille, 2 Julien Marchand, 3 Uini Atonio, 4 Thibaud Flament, 5 Paul Willemse, 6 Anthony Jelonch, 7 Charles Ollivon, 8 Grégory Alldritt
France play their home games at the Stade de France, which has turned into something of a fortress under Galthié. Only Scotland have managed to win there since 2020, and even that took a try with a clock in the red.
Located to the north of Paris in the suburb of Saint-Denis, there used to be a sense that the ground could feel a little cold and quiet when things were not going France’s way. The recent resurgence has also coincided with a lot of work from the FFR to improve the atmosphere at home games and the late kick-offs see the stadium turn into a sort of nightclub after the full-time whistle.
And of course, when it comes to Paris itself, there is plenty to keep even the most demanding of rugby fans happy around the city.
Strength: Almost unrivalled depth
It says a lot about France that even without their second and third choice hookers behind Julien Marchand – perhaps the world’s best in his position – there was still no place in the squad for Camille Chat, who you sense would be welcomed with open arms by the majority of international coaches. It is a similar story in other positions, even the centres where Galthié is missing Danty, Arthur Vincent and the sadly retired Virimi Vakatawa, and yet can still call upon an outstanding duo in Gaël Fickou and Yoram Moefana. Other than Dupont, Alldritt and Atonio, you sense that they could probably cope with the loss of any player.
Weakness: Attacking game plan which was neutralised in November
It is hard to find too many weaknesses in a team that has won 13 matches in a row and beaten all comers in that time. Still, even if they scored at least 30 points a match in November, they did not look quite as fluent in attack as had previously been the case. The fact that Romain Ntamack was playing after no rugby for two months may well have been a factor, but France will certainly hope to pose more of a threat with ball in hand this year.
South Africa also highlighted a frailty defending the rolling maul that coach Karim Ghezal will have been working hard on in the intervening months.
What the press are saying:
Midi Olympique’s Jérôme Prévôt: “There is a sense of optimism following the run of victories. There is a sense of euphoria and faith in Fabien Galthié, his qualities as a coach and a tactician. There is also this feeling that Dupont, Ntamack, and to a lesser extend Jalibert, are exceptional playmakers.
“There are two key absentees, Jonathan Danty and Cameron Woki, two players who have been very good in their recent performances for France. So if there is going to be a problem, that might be the cloud that is hanging over France.
“Toulouse and La Rochelle, who provide the majority of the internationals, did well in Europe, so the struggles of the other clubs is not too much of a concern.”
If they were a pop group, they would be… Air
The French electronic duo enjoyed great success in the late 90s, just as France recorded back-to-back Grand Slams and reached a World Cup final under Jean-Claude Skrela and Pierre Villepreux.
It is a different double act overseeing France these days, with Fabien Galthié and Raphaël Ibañez not afraid to look outside the sphere of rugby to shape their vision of the game.
Where Air’s Jean-Benoît Dunckel took inspiration from classical music, electronic acts and so-called ‘English dark rock’ like Siouxsie and the Banshees, Galthié has travelled the world looking for coaching advice, be it in Argentina or spending time in camp with Eddie Jones.
Whether his white trainers and iconic glasses qualify him for the moniker ‘Sexy Boy’, Air’s most successful single, is another matter entirely.