Something is stirring in France, and the rest of the rugby world should take note. The cockerel may not yet be crowing but there’s a shine to its tail feathers that has been missing for a few seasons.
The French public loves the Rugby World Cup – and no, that’s not a statement of the obvious. Autumn internationals and summer tours to the southern hemisphere come and go without much comment (except in the dedicated rugby press) because there’s little at stake. Even the Six Nations has lost some of its lustre in recent seasons because of its format that can seal a team’s fate midway through the tournament. But the knock-out nature of the World Cup still captures the Gallic imagination.
French television in partnership with the FFR has launched its official tournament publicity campaign, the slogan of which is “Rugby’s Played by 66 million”, and turn on a TV or radio and you’re likely to see or hear Sébastien Chabal or Fabien Galthié promoting something or other.
The public is responding. More than 5,000 spectators were in Perpignan earlier in the month to watch Philippe Saint-Andre put his squad through their paces in an early morning session, while the combined television audience for the two England warm-up matches was 8.5 million.
History proves that the French have good cause for optimism. They’ve reached at least the semi-final of every World Cup except 1991, when they lost to England in the quarter-final, arguably the most brutal and ill-tempered match in the tournament’s history.
Yet a few weeks ago France weren’t even been talked of as serious World Cup contenders. When Eddie Jones was asked at the end of July for his tournament predictions the Japan coach rated England and the Tri-Nations as the four to watch with Wales and Ireland missing the ‘X-factor’ to win the big games. He didn’t even bother discussing the chances of Saint-Andre’s squad, a snub that was duly noted in France.
So Saturday’s convincing defeat of England was gleefully received by the press and the public, and for the first time there is genuine belief in France that their boys are serious contenders. “Les Soldats de L’Espoir” [The Soldiers of Hope] was the headline in Monday’s Midi Olympique, and much of this hope is invested in their formidable pack.
After two months of intense preparation, the first month of which was focused primarily on fitness, France look lean, mean and tuned into Saint-Andre’s game plan. For a long while PSA – like his predecessors Bernard Laporte and Marc Lievremont – has bemoaned the lack of preparation time afforded the squad before Test matches. He has long asserted that with an adequate amount of preparation he could turn France into World Cup contenders. Based on Saturday’s performance PSA looks to have been vindicated, although France shouldn’t get too carried away.
England were woeful in Paris, arguably their worst performance under Stuart Lancaster. The enigma that is Frederic Michalak was justifiably voted Man of the Match but the French fly-half won’t receive such a comfortable ride come the World Cup; unlike England, other countries have top-class open-sides who won’t give him the space and time he enjoyed in Paris.
It’s a sorry indictment of French goalkicking that Michalak became his country’s record Test match points scorer on Saturday night. The 32-year-old, who won the first of his 71 caps in 2001, has racked up 394 points in 13 years. Congratulations, but that’s still nowhere near enough to get Michalak in the Top 20 of all-time international points scorers. In fact France is the only one of the so-called Big Eight nations not to boast a kicker who has scored more than 500 Test match points.
Goalkicking could be the chink in France’s armour that fatally undermines their World Cup ambitions. Michalak was in the groove on Saturday but over the years there have been few fly-halves as maddeningly inconsistent as Freddie. Awesome one match, awful the next. If he does lose his form and confidence during the World Cup then France are in trouble. Morgan Parra and Rory Kockoff are two kicking scrum-halves but it’s clear Saint-Andre intends to partner Michalak with Sébastien Tillous-Borde, a rarity in French rugby in that he’s a 9 who doesn’t pot goals. Remi Tales is Michalak’s understudy but he doesn’t kick; few are the rugby nations who would take a non-kicking fly-half to a World Cup.
But that’s France for you. They never do things by the book, which is why there’s no more intriguing rugby nation. A month ago we didn’t give them a chance, now suddenly they’re being talked of as serious contenders. Then again, knowing the French and how they’ve performed at times under PSA in the past four years, they could crash out at the group stage.