As the dust settles from a bewitching, and at times befuddling, series of summer Tests, rugby’s cognoscenti will attempt to piece together the new world order. So while Ireland soared, after a thrilling series win over Australia and a resurgent South Africa left England with more questions than answers, the side that caught this writer’s eye was France, who despite a Black-wash in New Zealand, appear to be laying firm foundations as dark horses for Japan.
So long impersonating the artist formerly known as Les Bleus, in recent weeks there has been cohesion, fluidity and joie de vivre seldom witnessed in the joyless reigns of Marc Lievremont, Philippe Saint-André and Guy Noves.
When Jacques Brunel took the reins weeks before the Six Nations, France were in disarray. A confidant to French rugby’s “Grande Fromage” Bernard Laporte, Brunel was clearly a “safe” appointment, but he was quick to display his steely side by dropping miscreants who stepped out of line in the fleshpots of Edinburgh after the Scotland loss and it was a line-in-the-sand moment; show pride in Le Coq, or else.
He also shown deft man-management skills. When Guilhem Guirado was injured he made Mathieu Bastareaud captain. With his dreadlocks, tattoos and well-documented problems off the pitch, ‘Basta’ was an unlikely establishment choice but he offered a reassuring ‘follow-me-into-battle’ mien that has emboldened France. A win over England showed they were ready to trade blows at rugby’s top table.
With Teddy Thomas and Gael Fickou on the flanks, Morgan Parra barking orders and Wesley Fofana oozing class in midfield, France have tentatively regained their va-va-voom. A further clue to their restored collective mindset was a thrilling try from Cedate Gomes Sa in the second New Zealand Test as the clock turned red, even though they were unluckily down to 14 men for 68 minutes. France couldn’t catch a break in New Zealand with Ofa Tu’ungafasi inexplicably avoiding a red card for a shoulder to the head of Remy Grosso and referee John Lacey blocking Baptiste Serin from reaching try-line bound Damian McKenzie. The history books will point to a capitulation but that’s misleading. France showed courage in the face of adversity.
There are other signs that the world’s second largest playing population appear to be rising from years of torpor. At U20 level, France lifted their first World Championship, with Romain N’Tamack, Jordan Joseph and Demba Bamba all tipped to spearhead a golden generation.
French rugby has also been hamstrung by internecine ructions for years as the financially powerful Top14 subsumed hundreds of overseas players in a strategy that was detrimental to national interest, but a softening in rhetoric led to the implementation of the JIFF rule (where 14 France qualified players have to be included in 23-man squads), which means more French talent will gain much-needed game time. Brunel is key to this uneasy truce.
With the World Cup set to return in 2023, far from being downhearted, lovers of French rugby can, at last, see the first shoots of recovery…