Fabien Galthie (L) and Raphael Ibanez have been key in turning around France
As a rejuvenated France take on Scotland at Murrayfield tomorrow afternoon for top spot in Group B of the bedevilled Autumn Nations Cup, they do so with the full backing of their president, Bernard Laporte, who believes that “a sense of hope and possibility” has been restored to French rugby by the exploits of the new generation.
France have grown in stature since Laporte brought in Fabien Galthie and Raphael Ibanez last year to overhaul a national team who have been in the wilderness for a decade, without a championship title since 2010.
Even if Laporte is the first to acknowledge that “these are early days and we must be humble”, the former head coach and trophy-garnering ex-manager at Toulon as well as France minister for sport insists that the days of not knowing what sort of French team would turn up on any given day are behind Les Bleus.
“Yes, let us hope we have laid that cliche to rest,” Laporte told The Telegraph. “The last 10 years has not been good enough for French rugby. We have had too many foreigners in the game, our players in general have not been fit enough, the coaching support staff for Les Bleus was too threadbare, our style has been random and confused, our young players were not getting enough opportunity to prosper – there were a lot of issues there.
"We believe now that we have made a start in resolving things, to give us some hope for the future, an air of positivity and of possibility.
“The national team are the shop window, or the locomotive if you like, the engine that drives so much, that pulls everything along behind. We have to rise again. It is not right to say that we will win the World Cup in 2023.
President of French rugby, Bernard Laporte, feels there is an air of positivity and possibility for the future now
“Of course not. That is arrogance. But we want to be assured that we have the potential to win the tournament, that we will be truly competitive. For the last 10 years we have not been at that level, in with a genuine chance of winning things. We need to establish ourselves in the top four in the world. That is the target. And we will be ready.”
Laporte is a charismatic, controversial figure, never far from headlines, not all of them favourable. He has had plenty of spats internally and externally, some of which have ended in legal disputes, indicates. But no one can accuse the 56-year-old of not getting things done.
France won two Grand Slams and four titles during his eight year tenure from 1999-2007. Toulon also prospered. There was an attempt to lure Warren Gatland to the French job following the 2019 World Cup only for the Top 14 clubs to veto the move, Laporte settling for two of Gatland’s former associates, one-time Wasps hooker Ibanez, and long-standing ally, defence coach Shaun Edwards.
There has been significant investment of resource and a revamp of attitudes, a root-and-branch process of reform. Where once there was hostility between club and country, now the technical staff go into the clubs and work together on conditioning. Laporte had two assistants when he was in charge. Galthie has a back-up staff of 20. The players, under the supervision of strength and conditioning coach Thibault Giroud, are far fitter. There is greater access to them.
The curb on foreign players is more robust with an edict that club match-day squads should have 14, rising to 15, French-qualified players in them. Promising young players are no longer nurtured in the National Centre at Marcoussis (15km south of Paris), often cocooned in the sterile surroundings for 40 weeks in the year. And they are given their chance. The 31-man squad to prepare for Italy next week includes 16 uncapped players. Twenty-one of the squad share just 31 caps between them.
“The young stay with their clubs these days and integrate with the older players,” Laporte said. “That way they learn and become better. These boys are getting exposure earlier.” There is a sense of structure about the whole operation.
“So much has changed in French rugby,” said former England lock Simon Shaw, who still lives near Toulon, where he saw out his career and where he has a hospitality and fantasy rugby business.
“I remember one pre-season where we were based on a small island off the coast. Bernard [Laporte] did a brief flip-chart presentation of aims and objectives and then we hit the rosé all afternoon.
"There was a lot of machismo in club rugby that held it back. It was all about ‘la bagarre,’ [the fight]. I used to love it when I played for Wasps. It was all so raw and confrontational. But it is passe as far as international rugby is concerned.
"Anyone who expects to win a Test match through brutality is in dreamland. But that sort of attitude hung around in French club rugby longer than anywhere else. France have got their house in order. The skill levels have always been fantastic. Now they’re putting it all to better use through planning, discipline, mental strength and all those other supposed Anglo-Saxon virtues.”
Many feel that Galthie’s team would have won a Grand Slam last season but for the stupid antics of prop Mohamed Haouas, who was sent off in the 37th minute against Scotland in March. Sunday’s return to Murrayfield will give a real indicator as to how real the French revival is. It is long overdue.
“In truth, we have been asleep for 20 years,” said Alain Penaud, a former French fly-half and father to another of the bright young things in blue, centre Damian, who expects to return from an ankle injury next month.
“The decline has been going on far too long. Even when we won, we did not have a proper collective identity. Fabien [Galthie] is putting that to right. It is not about French flair. That has always been rubbish. Every country has flair players. It is about being smart and on-message together.
“This generation has a real esprit de corps about them. They love playing rugby and they love playing together. They know it is about getting the small detail right, the scrum, the line-out, the maul and all that. But they also still have a desire for ball-in-hand and for self-expression. The balance is good. Above all, this French group realise the importance of humility. If they think for one second that they have cracked it, then they won’t prosper.”
Change is in the air for France. Tomorrow will be illuminating.