The Breakdown | Are France’s grand slam-chasing modernists superior to the classical old masters?
It is only three years ago, having just watched France throw away a 16-0 interval lead to Wales in Paris, that the former Les Bleus flanker and multiple grand slam winner Olivier Magne delivered a few home truths. “We won’t win anything with the current generation,” he hissed. “When I hear some players after games, it’s never their fault. At the first hitch, they collapse psychologically. This generation has been associated with defeat for too long … they are deeply traumatised.”
Magne, we now know, was two-thirds right. France’s national team did indeed require a new broom but, ultimately, the key has been better coaching and smarter man-management. Just ask Damian Penaud, Romain Ntamack, Uini Atonio, Paul Willemse, Julien Marchand, Demba Bamba, Grégory Alldritt and Gaël Fickou. All were part of the same matchday squad which collapsed so spectacularly in 2019 against the Welsh. Now they are potentially pivotal figures in a France squad seeking to conquer all-comers at next year’s Rugby World Cup.
This underlines the slim margins separating a bunch of serial losers from a roomful of heroic figures on the brink of something special. Victory over England on Saturday would deliver only the second French grand slam since 2005 and their 10th ever. Having collected four in eight years across the turn of the millennium, this year’s upbeat campaign has been a long time coming.
Comparing or rating grand slams is often invidious. The beauty is in the eye of the beholder, with the Irish clean sweep of 2018 every bit as praiseworthy as, say, the Welsh ones of 2012 and 2019. In France, though, there is a lively salon debate to be had if Fabien Galthié’s side prevail this weekend. Are the modernists of French rugby now superior to the classical old masters? Or will it take back-to-back grand slams and a World Cup triumph for the current team to be admitted to the pantheon?
In the Breakdown’s experience of all-conquering French champion sides, there are three main rivals for the label of best ever. Has there ever been a more daunting pack, for instance, than the 1977 vintage that steamrollered all before it, spearheaded by the mighty props Robert Paparemborde and Gérard Cholley, with Jean-François Imbernon and Michel Palmié blocking out the light in the second row? Behind them was the equally massive Jean-Pierre Bastiat at No8 with Jean-Pierre Rives and Jean-Claude Skrela on the flanks. The side was so settled that the same 15 players were used for the entire championship.
Buried in the small print, though, is the fact they only beat England 4-3 at Twickenham, with the England full-back, Alastair Hignell, missing five of his six penalty attempts. As Hignell ruefully recalled to the Guardian last year, the French still toast him even now. “In 2017, a French journalist came round to interview me … When the piece appeared the headline was: ‘The 16th man of the French XV!’”
Then there was the 1998 side, who rivalled Martin Johnson’s England in Dublin from 2003 in terms of the convincing flourish with which they clinched a second grand slam in as many seasons. With Thomas Castaignède at No 10 and Galthié as well as the current team manager, Raphael Ibañez, both involved, they took Wales apart 51-0 in a dazzling display at Wembley, having also stuck a half century of points on Scotland.
No one since has managed back-to-back grand slams, although the feat did arrive at a turbulent time in northern hemisphere rugby history. The previous autumn France lost 52-10 to South Africa in Paris, with European players having not fully adjusted to the fitness requirement of professionalism.
There is an argument, therefore, that the most satisfying French grand slam of all was completed in 2004 when Bernard Laporte’s team saw off Clive Woodward’s reigning world champions England 24-21 in Paris, having led 21-3 at half-time. Again Magne was hugely influential with Serge Betsen and Imanol Harinordoquy completing a formidable back row. After the game Laporte could not resist lobbing a juicy titbit to the Anglo-Saxon press: “I had messages from the coaches of New Zealand and Australia wanting us to beat the English,” he said. “Everybody is fed up of England winning … we have given pleasure to the whole world.”
Since then, however, only the team of 2010 – Thierry Dusautoir, Sébastien Chabal, Morgan Parra, François Trinh-Duc et al – have done likewise. Every day before the England game, on their bus journey to training, they sang I Gotta Feeling by Black Eyed Peas (“Tonight’s gonna be a good night …”) but also had a gruff defence coach, Dave Ellis, to keep them on the straight and narrow. The following year they reached the World Cup final, missing out to the All Blacks in Auckland by a single point.
Not many of the aforementioned teams, though, possessed the enviable balance France now have. Ntamack and Penaud are threatening to have even more illustrious Test careers than their famous fathers Émile and Alain, while Melvyn Jaminet kicks goals with the same side-eye accuracy as Jonny Wilkinson. Up front, at their best, the deft inter-passing between the forwards is wonderful to behold while the lineout wobbles of Cardiff were all the more notable for their rarity.
And we have not even mentioned their kingpin, Antoine Dupont, who will be looking to remind England’s young half-backs of the current European pecking order. Nothing can be guaranteed on the concluding weekend of a tight Six Nations but this young French side could soon put some illustrious names in the shade.