Raphael Ibanez celebrates with the players after France beat Ireland in the Six Nations
France are not just fun again: based on their form this year, they are once more a major force in the sport, and team manager Raphael Ibanez can pinpoint the moment he knew something special was happening. “Winning away from home in Cardiff,” he said, when asked which of France’s five wins from six games in 2020 stood out. “That requires a strong character.”
Ibanez should know, having won three Grand Slams as a player with France while also captaining the side to the 1999 Rugby World Cup final. The next part of his answer should put everyone on notice.
“I know we should expect some set-backs in the future, but the main message we wanted to send out to other teams is, ‘we’re back’,” he says, before breaking into a chuckle. “Of course, we know we have a few areas we need to address, we especially conceded too many penalties in the games against Wales and Ireland for example. But we wanted this French team to be very hard to play, hard to deal with. And offensively, to create some chaos, some trouble for the best defensive set-ups. That’s the main goal for us.”
Glance over France’s numbers for 2020 and they have certainly wreaked havoc going forward. Compared to the other Six Nations sides, France are scoring more points, making more metres and offloads, and are tied first for tries and clean breaks, while sitting fractionally behind Wales for defenders beaten at a rate of 21.8 per game.
A spine is emerging, starting with Julian Marchand at hooker and extending through the locks, Bernard le Roux and Paul Willemse, the captain in the back row, Charles Ollivon, irrepressible young half-backs Antoine Dupont and Romain Ntamack and finishing with Gael Fickou and Virimi Vakatawa in midfield.
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Outside of Le Roux, who at 30 is playing some of the best rugby of his career, this is a youthful side. Raw leaders like Ollivon are learning as they go. On Saturday at Murrayfield, France will return to the scene of their only defeat so far this year.
“We have been fortunate to give confidence to some key players in the team. Ollivon as captain, that was his first experience with so many responsibilities and in fact he did really well, because he looked after his team-mates and played some great games – I think he scored a try in almost every game, which is impressive for a back-row,” Ibanez notes.
“The French team was desperate for years and years to find some talent and a good link between the backs and forwards at nine and 10. I think we are now well aware of the potential there with Antoine and Romain. Those two young players are still learning a lot but they keep developing their skills and understanding of the game. But they learn fast, which is good for us.”
It is hard not to get excited about Dupont in particular. Different in style to the organisers France have recently had at scrum-half – Dimitri Yachvili, Morgan Parra – Dupont is muscular, a runner as well as an excellent distributor. It is rare for France to make a break these days without Dupont popping up as a support runner on the inside. The world, naturally, is raving about him.
The rugby world is raving about Antoine Dupont (left)
“He is learning so fast,” admits Ibanez. “He has so much talent and potential. He was named the best player of the Six Nations, which has never happened for any France men’s player since the trophy was created in 2004.
“People tend to believe he could be part of a World XV. What we say and think is that a World XV is hypothetical and doesn’t exist and in reality if you want to win titles and conquer the world, you have to face the best. Antoine himself has faced the best in his position in the northern hemisphere, but we have not played any southern hemisphere teams – Aaron Smith and TJ Perenara are probably good examples – so there is still a lot to come for himself and the team.”
Dupont, Ntamack and Ollivon were already on the scene last year, when France arguably should have beaten Wales to make the Rugby World Cup semi-finals. The new coaching staff – Ibanez, Galthie, Laurent Labit, William Servat, Karim Ghezal and notably Shaun Edwards – have made an instant impact. Edwards, in particular, seems like the missing piece France have needed for a decade, with his grasp of the local dialect continuing to improve.
Shaun Edwards has made a big impact
“It’s slowly coming along,” notes a laughing Ibanez. “But his contribution is precious. He has so much experience, the trust of the players, which is the most important thing, and on the international stage you do not need too many words, you need to keep it simple. That is what he brings to the team.”
This is not a coaching staff, according to Ibanez, led by a king, like Eddie Jones with England. France have turned to the power of the collective, despite Galthie’s title as head coach.
“It’s a common belief at international level that every team needs a guru, someone on top, an emperor leading the team. But Fabien doesn’t behave like that, not at all. With myself and the coaching staff, we share everything: selection, management, gameplan. This is what we decided since we took over. It’s reinventing, or creating a new model of managing the team and that’s what we want. People will have to get used to it, because we share everything with Fabien and myself and everyone.”
Most importantly of all, France have won back the belief of the public, a vital development with a home Rugby World Cup now on the horizon.
“As I keep saying to the players, if you give everything you have on the field, people will give that back to you a million times over,” Ibanez adds. “We need to keep going and to give a good image of French rugby. We are representing all the amateur clubs, all the people passionate for rugby. The players must be aware of that and I am always there to remind the team of that.”