After almost a decade in the doldrums, there is now sustained evidence to suggest France are well and truly back at rugby’s top table.
Les Bleus are heading to Dublin this weekend, intent on putting Ireland’s Six Nations hopes firmly to bed, and to propel their own in the process.
Few Irishman are as well versed in the French game as Ronan O’Gara, who is currently the head coach of Top 14 outfit La Rochelle, having previously spent four years working with Racing 92.
The Cork native has seen the club game predominate the national side in the minds of players in recent years, but that is now beginning to revert in light of their resurgence under Fabien Galthie.
“The mentality has changed,” O’Gara observed.
“It was unbelievable to think when I was coaching at Racing that you had some guys you’d hear that weren’t interested in going to French camp. That’s very, very strange.
“Now it’s the complete opposite. Now it’s different – they’d run the 200km from La Rochelle to get to French camp!
“There’s still huge interest in the club game, but I think now there’s a nice bit of pride seeping back into their national team.
“Bizarrely, the World Cup probably did that for them, and then they imploded against Wales [in the quarter-final], Vahaamahina with the discipline issue. But I think they won a lot of hearts back in that tournament. Then obviously the performance with their second team in Twickenham has them up for this Six Nations.”
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France enjoyed a perfect start to the campaign, with a bonus-point win away to Italy in which they recorded 50 points.
With Antoine Dupont at his brilliant best and the famed French ‘flair’ very much coursing through their play, O’Gara feels Andy Farrell’s charges are up a dangerous prospect this weekend.
“Traditionally, going back 10 years everyone wanted to avoid Italy in the first two games because at the end of the competition they were dead and they didn’t have the strength in depth and because of the attrition of the game they’d be down a few key players,” he noted.
“Nowadays France for me seem to have a big advantage, because [Italy] is nothing more than a serious hit-out for France to run shapes, run different plays.
“It’s nearly an 80-minute period of exploration of ‘where my game is’. That’s very advantageous to teams in this competition where probably five teams are well-matched and then there’s a complete outlier.
“It’s hard to know where France are too in one regard. Italy, for long periods, caused them trouble but undid it with an absolute [crazy] offload that was never on, or a dropped ball or a poor decision. While the six good phases they had previously, they’d then give up the ball and France are deadly on turnover ball.
“That’s what they love in Top 14 and that’s what they love at Test level. You can see the French camp is confident and be wary of the French when they’re confident.”
And O’Gara knows France have embraced the modern game.
“I think they’re very organised now,” he warned. “I think they would be big into GPS and big into high-metre speed and accelerations.
“A lot of their data would be similar to the other nations speaking to a few of the fitness coaches here who have friends in the French team.
“They’re very much in sync with what’s going on with world rugby and I think under Galthié they have a lot of coaches and a lot of people where everything is defined. The lineout coach or the ruck coach is 12 minutes, the attack coach is 20 minutes, the defence coach is 12 minutes and it’s ‘bang, bang, bang’ like that and you’ve got to win the transition.
“They train at a very high intensity on a Wednesday before a Test match and if you cannot do that session, you won’t feature at the weekend.”
They’re very organised now.
O’Gara has seen the turnaround up close
Can France back up the hype?
With the favourites tag for the tournament now firmly on their back, there is huge expectation on France.
But the question is, can they back it up?
“They’re talking about it, it’s on the radio. It’s in the local papers. This team wants titles now,” O’Gara explained. “Never before has that been in their language. [Charles] Ollivon is saying ‘we want silverware’, ‘we want to win the Six Nations’, ‘we want to win a Grand Slam’.
“They’re smart too, the addition of [Shaun] Edwards to their Latin temperament is very interesting and that blend is working well.
“They look threatening on both sides of the ball and they’re marshalled by the best player in the world for me – in Dupont – so whether it’s good weather or bad it doesn’t matter, because he’s going to be around the ball and that gives your team such an advantage.
“In seven or eight years time whenever he hangs up the boots, he’s a guy that will have marked this era of players.”
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