Should Galthie have been bolder with his decision making during the 2024 Six Nations? James Harrington gives his verdict...

What if Fabien Galthie’s biggest mistake in the 2024 Six Nations was being too conservative with his France selection calls? Or has circumstance dictated plans?

When he officially took charge of France in January 2020, he scored a deep and definitive line in the sand, separating his tenure from that of his predecessors. Bernard Le Roux was the only player in his first 42-strong squad to have hit 30.

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Gael Fickou, with 51 caps, was the most experienced player and one of only four with more than 30 senior men’s internationals under his belt. The other three – Le Roux, Jefferson Poirot, and Baptiste Serin – all had 30-some caps.

In total, 19 players were uncapped – including Cameron Woki, Louis Carbonel, Jean-Baptiste Gros, Arthur Vincent and Demba Bamba.

Fast forward to the disappointment-laden aftermath of the Rugby World Cup 2023. There was a sense of expectation in France that Galthie would – partially, at least – repeat his selection trick for the 2024 Six Nations.

Refreshing the France selection for Six Nations 2024

On the face of it, a renewal and reset made some sense. Uini Atonio and Romain Taofifenua planned to hang up their international boots after France 2023, anyway.  Immediately after the quarter-final defeat, centre Jonathan Danty said he didn’t know if he was in Fabien Galthie’s future plans.

And a new generation was coming through. Mountainous lock Emmanuel Meafou was, finally, eligible for France. Bordeaux’s 20-year-old winger Louis Bielle-Biarrey had overtaken Gabin Villiere in the pecking order during the World Cup.

Centres Emilien Gailleton and Bordeaux’s Nicolas Depoortere were hammering noisily on the senior international door. Perpignan’s Posolo Tuilagi – still eligible for the U20s – was beating it down.

Bordeaux young gun Marko Gazotti, another who could slip into the age-grade squad and Racing 92’s forgotten eight Jordan Joseph were issuing reminders of their potential.

Atonio’s understudy at La Rochelle, Georges-Henri Colombe, is starting to show what he can do.

Olympic gold

Antoine Dupont has been a big loss for France in the Six Nations (AFP via Getty Images)

The potential was available. Change seemed inevitable. The timing seemed right. And then… nothing happened. Atonio and Taofifenua were persuaded to put international retirement on hold. Danty was again selected, despite his earlier doubts. But why?

Let’s go back, briefly, to that first selection. Between the end of the 2019 World Cup in Japan and the first camp for the 2020 Six Nations opener, Galthie and his staff asked players straight if they were willing and able to meet the demands the new coaching team would set.

Anyone with doubts – one discussion with Wenceslas Lauret broadcast by France Televisions was cringeworthy – were ignored at selection time. Those who said they could and would were given a shot.

The need for total buy-in

For four years since, Galthie has worked with players who bought into his philosophy. It’s surely little wonder that he would stick with them. They understand what’s expected of them, and anyone coming in to the squad today knows no other way but the Galthie way.

So, in what was supposed to be Six Nations catharsis after the devastation of the World Cup, Galthie stuck to his selection guns. Then came the loss to Ireland, the thickness of a TMO-decision win over Scotland, and the width of an upright draw against Italy. Cue questions and criticism.

Galthie explained his consistency policy in a press conference shortly before the debacle against Gonzalo Quesada’s Azzurri: “We hear those who say we need to make changes. But rugby is not (singing reality show) Star Academy.

“We could have fun looking at the effect of a massive turnover (of players). It’s not what we believe in.”

For the record, Paul Boudehent started against Italy in place of injured captain Gregory Alldritt, and Tuilagi got his first start, replacing Paul Gabrillagues.

Galthie now has to fill holes at centre and fly-half, following Danty’s red and Matthieu Jalibert’s injury. Yoram Moefana is favourite for the 12 shirt, while Thomas Ramos appears likely to move from fullback to 10, with Stade Francais’ Leo Barre coming in at 15 for his first senior men’s cap. Meafou, too, is in the reckoning for an injury-delayed debut.

Some changes, then. But enough and fast enough? Galthie has already said that he wants to “take 80 to 90 per cent” of the squad he assembled for the 2023 World Cup to Australia in 2027.

“We started in 2020 with a group that averaged 24 years and eight caps, to one that was 27 years old, with 33 caps, against South Africa in 2023. We hope the average will be 31 years and 60 caps at the next World Cup,” he said.

The Meafou grab has long been on the cards. Galthie has also given first senior caps to Tuilagi, Nolann Le Garrec, Alexandre Roumat and Esteban Abadie in 2024, while Toulon’s lock Matthias Halagahu and Agen’s promising tighthead Alex Burin are among the list of uncapped players called to training camps. It’s not as if nothing has changed. There’s time for them all to get a hatful of experience between now and the flight Down Under.

But should Galthie have gone further, acted before injuries and circumstance acted for him?

The calls to rest the likes of Cyril Baille, Danty, Fickou, and Charles Ollivon for this Six Nations have only increased in volume as France’s interest in the title melted away, though it’s questionable how rested they would be. This season’s domestic schedule hasn’t allowed Top 14 clubs much time off since returning to action the day after the final following a seven-week non-compete pause during the Rugby World Cup.

In truth, Galthie’s figures seem to track. A strong, experienced backbone, with three years or so to find the keys to the remaining 10 to 20 percent for this squad is far from unreasonable. But would it have been possible to allow key players something of a break from internationals? Many of this France squad have been on the go pretty much non-stop since February 2023.

Refreshing the France selection for Six Nations matches

That’s a bigger question than the squad make-up – remember 19 of the 23 that escaped Italy and Lille with a draw in February put 60 points on them in early October. There was, perhaps, room for more experimentation.

In Galthie’s defence, he has integrated two new senior staff members in Patrick Arlettaz and Laurent Sempere. It’s not unreasonable to believe that he sought some continuity in his squad to offset the inevitable disruption in his staff.

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That it hasn’t worked is an important but secondary issue. The most politic thing to say about France’s new attack and lineout plans is that they’re taking time to settle.

Four years ago, Karim Ghezal’s lineout system was far from perfect. The difference between then and now is that France were winning in 2020, and it’s easy to overlook problems when you’re winning. Today, France are not winning, so system issues are screamingly apparent. There was evidence of improvement with both the lineout and in attack against Italy – especially in the first half, so maybe all is not lost just yet.

There’s another factor to consider when talking about France selection. Under the new FFR-LNR player release agreement, Galthie can take 42 players on July’s two-Test series in Argentina, a short tour that is also set to feature a ‘development’ match against World Cup opponents Uruguay.

The agreement states that Galthie and his staff will be limited to selecting players who have had little or no involvement in this year’s Six Nations, and no one from either of the two Top 14 finalists. It’s not impossible to imagine that he will give most, if not all, of his World Cup squad the summer off.

There’s no doubt that this year’s Six Nations have, so far, been disappointing for France. A Six Nations title would have mitigated some of the World Cup disappointment. But Les Bleus are just three matches into the second age of Galthie. He’s got the basics of his squad – there is time for development yet.

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