The story of the three scrum-halves that delivered France’s Grand Slam

Fabien Galthié before the game 31/10/2020
As so often with France, the 2022 Grand Slam was a story of scrum-halves.

As so often with France, the 2022 Grand Slam was a story of scrum-halves.

Where for most countries, the No.10 jersey is rugby’s most precious commodity, in France it has always been the man just inside them pulling the shots.

The 2022 Guinness Six Nations champions had a scrum-half leading the side and scoring the title-clinching try and another coaching the team.

Skipper Antoine Dupont and head coach Fabien Galthié have rightly received plaudits for their part in the success at the Stade de France, but in truth, this is a tale of three scrum-halves.

And it goes back three years. In 2019, France had opened their campaign with a heart-breaking defeat to eventual champions Wales, letting a 16-0 half-time lead slip in the biggest comeback in the history of the Championship.

A week later they went to Twickenham to face an England team riding high from a bonus-point success in Dublin and employing a new kicking strategy that had flummoxed Joe Schmidt and Ireland.

Galthié, who was not coaching at the time, had spent time with Eddie Jones in the England camp, getting a first-hand view of some of the training methods employed by the Australian.

On the day France tried to bounce back in Le Crunch, Galthié wrote a column in L’Équipe explaining how England’s kicking game would try to catch France out.

He laid out England’s game plan down to the tiniest detail and a few hours later, we saw it work to perfection as Jones’ side exploited Yoann Huget’s inexperience in the No.15 jersey in a sobering 44-8 defeat.

Almost every time England put boot to ball, they found space in behind France, with five of their six tries coming from kicks.

France had no answer and the inquest began in earnest. This is where the third scrum-half enters the equation.

Morgan Parra, a Grand Slam champion in 2010, started at nine at Twickenham and where others were diplomatic after the loss, he spoke with honesty about France’s shortcomings.

He said: “It’s a statement of fact: in training we don’t work enough on high-level details. The English do simple things, but things they have worked on a great deal in training. They have mastered them perfectly. For us, the strategic aspect is something we don’t work on enough in training.”

That would prove to be the last of Parra’s 71 Test caps, but his comments outlined deficiencies in the French set-up that have since been resolved.

It is not that France cannot be targeted in the air. England kicked 34 times at the Stade de France on Saturday and enjoyed plenty of success. But that was in large part down to Freddie Steward’s ability to challenge for high balls. There was rarely, if any, open grass for England to target.

Under Galthié, who joined the coaching staff initially as an assistant to prepare for the 2019 World Cup, and then as head coach after that competition, France no longer trail other nations on the strategic front, they are leading the way.

Shaun Edwards was brought in as the defence coach and has just added a fourth Grand Slam to his collection after three with Wales. Galthié had always admired Edwards and even copied his defensive system for France out in Japan.

Then when Edwards said that he needed the expertise of kicking coach Vlok Cilliers, the South African came on board.

The commitment from the FFR to support this gifted generation of French players has been substantial, but it is being rewarded.

Of course, even the best coaching staff in the world is nothing without the players, and France have talent throughout the squad.

They feast at the breakdown with expert jackals from front row to back row, in the centres and on the wings. They have props and hookers who can offload and open up space and strike runners across the backline to finish when those opportunities are created.

In the physical contest, they have been able to dominate every opponent, winning the gain line battle and getting the upper hand in the set-piece.

And after all that, it comes back to the man in the No.9 jersey. Dupont is not a typical French scrum-half. The expression Le Petit Général is often used in English to describe French nines, though not in French. It comes from the diminutive Jacques Fouroux, known as Le Petit Caporal, who would bark and bully his giant pack of forwards around in the 1970s.

Pierre Berbizier, Dimitri Yachvili and Parra have followed in the same vein, strategists capable of managing a game and pulling the strings from scrum-half.

Physically, none of them were particularly imposing. Dupont is not big either, but in terms of pure strength, as well as endurance, he is at another level to his predecessors. He is at another level to his contemporaries too.

It was not just that he ended Saturday night as the top tackler with 15 – equalling his coach’s record for tackles by a French No.9 in the Championship – it is the impact of those tackles. When Maro Itoje hesitated behind a ruck, Dupont was there to bring him down and allow best friend Anthony Jelonch to get in for the turnover. When Joe Marchant slipped a couple of tackles in midfield in the first half, it was Dupont who got back to bring him down.

A week ago in Cardiff, a collective gasp followed Dupont’s fend on Josh Navidi, bumping one of the best tacklers in the competition as if he was not there.

Dupont is the master of the support lines, fittingly finishing the job on Saturday night with yet another, has developed into an exceptional kicker of both feet, and he has the engine to keep doing it for 80 minutes.

That is not to say he is not a strategist, his rugby IQ is off the charts. But his physical gifts allow him to play a different style to those who went before him.

In the collapse at Twickenham in 2019, he came off the bench and shone in a losing cause. Parra’s honesty may have played a part in his omission from the team, but Dupont’s time had come. He started the win over Scotland a fortnight later and has been first choice ever since.

That the crowning glory at the Stade de France came against England was only right. This France team announced itself to the world by beating England in Paris in the 2020 Championship opener, but Dupont misreading the clock at the death allowed the visitors to snatch a losing bonus point that eventually swung the destination of the Championship.

Last year, Itoje’s late try ended France’s Grand Slam hopes at Twickenham and ultimately cost them in the final shakeup.

This time around, England were not going to spoil the party. Not with a scrum-half pulling the strings on the pitch and another pulling them off it.

It always comes down to the nines and in Antoine Dupont, France have an all-time great.