Between the lines

Six Nations: a new golden age for French rugby?

The hosts of next year’s Rugby World Cup will take some stopping

The Six Nations entered its final weekend with one side sitting “well ahead of the pack”, said Robert Kitson in The Observer. France, by some distance the “best team in the tournament”, had won their first four matches – meaning only England stood between them and their first grand slam since 2010. And in front of a joyous crowd at the Stade de France, Les Bleus duly got the victory they needed, though they had to work unexpectedly hard to do so. England “offered stout defiance and an occasionally productive kick-chasing game”, while a clearly nervous French side committed far more handling errors than usual. Yet in the end, the simple superiority of the home team’s “all-court” game showed, and they won 25-13. It’s a victory that will have rippled “ominously around the world”. France are the hosts of next year’s Rugby World Cup – and on this evidence they will take some stopping. 

Winning the 2023 World Cup has indeed become something of a “national project for the French”, said Andy Bull in The Guardian. It’s a task that has prompted the whole of French rugby to pull together after more than “ten years of bickering”. Under the presidency of Bernard Laporte, the French Rugby Federation has undertaken several much-needed reforms – including cutting back the number of overseas players permitted in domestic leagues, and investing heavily in the country’s youth set-up. And in Fabien Galthié, the national team clearly has a superlative coach, said Jonathan Liew in the same paper. A “restless, ruthless and divisive” individual whose perfectionism “verges on obsession”, Galthié is far from a typical rugby coach. Ahead of France’s recent match against Wales, he summoned the philosopher Charles Pépin to pepper his “players with gnomic rhetorical questions”, including “What is a beautiful team?”. Eddie Jones, Galthié’s counterpart in England, would never contemplate anything like that. And yet the Frenchman’s methods clearly work. 

One striking mark of how French rugby is changing is that it’s no longer wholly dominated by its “traditional heartlands” in the rural south and southwest, said John Westerby in The Times. In recent years, an increasing “flow of talent towards the national team” has come from the banlieues that sprawl around Paris – the same inner-city areas that have spawned “such a glut of professional footballers”. Examples in the national team include midfielder Jonathan Danty – who grew up playing for ASPTT Paris Île-de-France, a “small club surrounded by highrises” – and 19-stone prop Demba Bamba, a former junior judo champion who grew up in nearby Saint-Denis. And with new talent continually emerging from this area – the “explosive” Jordan Joseph, seen as “one of the country’s rising stars”, being a case in point – the future of French rugby looks extremely bright. 

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