Despite a narrow loss to the Wallabies, the ambition and joie de vivre shown by France have given the public hope that a brighter future awaits...
France are once more playing with flair, and the nation is happy. Following Saturday’s thrilling clash with Australia, Midi Olympique talked of “promise for the future” and L’Equipe praised their “appealing ambition”.
But France still lost, and to a second-string Australia shorn of its stalwarts, a defeat that saw Les Bleus slip from seventh to eighth in the world rankings. Defeat to New Zealand on Saturday would appear inevitable and that could leave France in a precarious position ahead of May’s draw to decide the 2019 World Cup pools.
Before the draw is made France visit Twickenham, Dublin and Rome in the Six Nations, while hosting Scotland and Wales in Paris. Victory against either England or Ireland seems remote given their impressive form this autumn, and Italy will also be a serious challenge. Saturday’s historic defeat of South Africa will do wonders for the Azzurri’s morale and they’ve won two of their last three matches at home to France.
Les Bleus need a rankings boost
So while France may have shed the sterile style of rugby that characterised the four wretched years of Philippe Saint-Andre‘s reign, they need to start getting results to make sure they’re in the top eight when the World Cup pool draw takes place. If they’re not, then they’ll be in the third tier of seeds and that could mean ending up in a pool containing, for example, Australia [tier one seed] and Wales [tier two seed]. As Stuart Lancaster can testify, that’s a scenario best avoided.
Against Australia France flattered to deceive. The rugby they played was easy on the eye but how was it they lost when their pack won all 10 scrums, including three on Australia’s feed? How was it they lost when they made 431 metres to Australia’s 350 and boasted five line breaks to the Wallabies’ four?
Execution is a let-down
Those are the stats of a side whose execution let them down, as well as their decision-making in the ‘red zone’. The most glaring example was four minutes from the end when Scott Spedding ignored a two man overlap as he galloped into the Australian 22.
Guy Noves and his coaching staff should be able to iron out those flaws in the coming months but the other two significant weaknesses in this French squad will be harder to redress.
As this column predicted, Australia won the breakdown battle with the French unable to prevent the pilfering of David Pocock. Had Michael Hooper not been rested it could have been even worse for the French, and the problem for Noves is to unearth a flanker who plays in a similar style. The last such player produced by France was Thierry Dusautoir, in the early years of his Test career, but in recent years Top 14 clubs have preferred big ball-carrying French flankers to the smaller open-side snafflers.
Lack of a top-class goal-kicker
Then there’s the lack of a top-class goalkicker, a subject that frankly this column is weary of repeating. Seven points were squandered in front of goal against Australia and an attempted drop goal by Camille Lopez in the last minute also missed the target. This French team can run the ball out of their 22 as many times as they like, but until they find a kicker of the consistent quality of a Barrett, Farrell or Sexton, they’ll never be a serious World Cup contenders.
Saturday’s Test with the All Blacks – the first encounter since New Zealand thrashed France 62-13 in the quarter-final of the 2015 World Cup – will give the clearest indication yet of the progress made under the Noves’ regime. The scrum will be under more pressure than last Saturday, so too the line-out (France won all 10 of their balls against Australia) and the All Blacks will have noted that the French defence missed nearly 20% of its tackles against a largely inexperienced Wallaby side.
The omens aren’t in France’s favour on Saturday. In five of their last six blocks of November internationals, Les Bleus have lost the final match, their intensity dropping away as the month wore on. If France fail to pick up the pace against New Zealand the tourists are likely to wrap up 2016 with an emphatic win.