Yesterday, France looked like Grand Slam winners. They were clinical, and aggressive, and, in holding off a late Wales comeback to retain their lead in the last ten minutes, proved they are a far cry from the France that lost to the same opponents at the quarterfinals of the Rugby World Cup last autumn.
It has been much talked about, but France’s defence was phenomenal. Shaun Edwards’ appointment as defence coach has left Les Blues organised and aggressive. Pushing the off-side line on the edge of every ruck, the oncoming blue wall gave Biggar no time to either bring the ball to the gain-line and slip players into gaps or spin it out wide. Further, there were French forwards contesting every breakdown, a risk that paid off. Even though France committed a lot of men to the rucks, it meant Wales had no regular or reliable quick ball – also leading to a lot of turnovers at seemingly risk-free breakdowns.
Meanwhile in attack France were free and fluid. Although coming to no avail, Gaël Fickou’s disallowed try in the first half perfectly demonstrated this. Bouthier’s curved run carved a whole in the Welsh defence before offloading to outside centre Vakatawa. A few off-loads (and ultimately a forward pass) later, the ball was back with Ntamack who placed a perfectly weighted cross-kick on Fickou’s left-wing who stepped inside an onrushing Welsh defender before scoring. It was fast, it was clean, it was clinical – and it reminded me of a France of old: exciting with flair and creativity rather than underwhelming with straight lines and wasted chances.
Two players that are especially getting France back to days of old, are Antoine Dupont and Romain Ntamack at half-backs. They were both sensational on Saturday, and they reminded me of two key players from France’s Grand Slam winning side: Morgan Parra and Francois Trinh-Duc. Dupont at scrum-half really is like Parra. Small, scrappy, Bonapartean in character, they both doggedly march around the rucks, barking instructions at their forwards. Le petit corporal. However, both Dupont and Parra are canny and quick and can pick a gap when they see one.
The similarities between Ntamack and Trinh Duc are even stronger. Unphased, unflappable, effortlessly cool. Both have the ability to do outrageous things without breaking a sweat. If Parra and Dupont fall into the short-tempered French trope, then Trinh Duc and Ntamack fill the trope of the subdued-but-oozing-with-cool Parisian to aplomb.
Last time France won the Grand Slam, they had these two manifestations of the French character at nine and ten. This year, they seem to have found their replacements, and this could bode well for the men in blue.
By Will Sewell.