Rugby World Cup 2019: France team guide

France, what have you done with your talent?

Times have changed but when opponents talk about French players, the same word still always gets mentioned: unpredictable. That is strange because it has been quite a while since the French national team has surprised anyone, and their supporters have practically given up hope of ever again feeling the spine-tingling thrill produced by an unexpected and heroic victory, the sort that sustains dreams for decades. The last time Les Bleus inspired a joy like that was at the 2011 World Cup when, after being beaten by New Zealand and then humiliated by Tonga in pool matches, they pulled off against-the-odds wins over England and Wales before meeting the All Blacks again in the final, where they went toe-to-toe with them until the last minute (eventually going down 8-7).

On the day of that glorious defeat, the men captained by Thierry Dusautoir, who would be voted player of the year a few hours later, faced up to the challenge of the haka by arranging themselves into the shape of an arrowhead, which, in Maori culture, is the symbol of a broken union. Since then France fans have been offered nothing memorable to feed off (the country has won only 34 of 89 matches since then) so they keep themselves warm by harking back to the glorious feats of French attackers of yore, such as Serge Blanco’s tries against Australia in 1987, the exploits of Christophe Dominici, Richard Dourthe and Philippe Bernat-Salles in 1999, or Dusautoir and Yannick Jauzion in 2007 and Dusautoir again in 2011, again against the All Blacks.

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As dust gathers on the stock of such souvenirs, bitterness has grown. Flashes of revolt are not enough for anyone to kid themselves. The slow, laborious rugby of the Top 14 has been lamented for more than 10 years, and French coaches have been denounced, too, accused of shrinking into their dogmas and neglecting the fact that elsewhere, the game is getting faster.

The statistics of France’s last three head coaches show a downward trend (46% win rate under Philippe Saint-André, then 36% under Guy Novès and Jacques Brunel) and there is no sign of the spiral ending. As an example of French doubts and tentativeness, take the half-backs, which have become the scene of a farcical game of musical chairs. Over the last four years Camille Lopez and Baptiste Serin, the most frequently selected players for those positions, have each played only 13 matches and not always together; compare that to Owen Farrell, George Ford and Ben Youngs, who have respectively started 35, 30 and 30 of England’s 42 matches since 2016.

There has been chopping and changing of managers, too, with Novès becoming the first in France’s history to be sacked. His dismissal did not have the desired effect. So in June the French Rugby Federation decided that the current incumbent, Jacques Brunel, should include his successor, Fabien Galthié, in his coaching setup for this tournament before, in theory, Galthié leads Les Bleus to the 2023 World Cup. The backroom staff has also been augmented by a new fitness specialist and another coach (Laurent Labit, formerly of Racing 92) who will focus on the forwards, giving the impression that France is finally starting to embrace modern methods by engaging a range of skill sets. But with the World Cup looming, this all feels distinctly like a hasty patch-up job and the fear is that France, who have been cast into one of the toughest pools with England and Argentina, could fail to reach the quarter-finals for the first time in World Cup history.

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• Dominique Issartel is a sports journalist for L’Équipe


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