Gerry Thornley: France’s decline has damaged the Six Nations spectacle

The joie de vivre the French club players have been playing has been replaced by joylessness for the national team

Basically, the 2024 Six Nations has pretty much gone according to expectations save for one obvious outlier. As the most settled side, on and off the pitch, and the best coached, Ireland have carried on seamlessly in Andy Farrell’s fifth season as head coach despite the painful World Cup anticlimax.

Ditto, to a large degree the Scots – now in their seventh season under Gregor Townsend – even if privately they must still be kicking themselves that they played cautiously rather than pressing home their six-point second-half lead at Murrayfield against a French team that were there for the taking.

Meanwhile, England, Wales and Italy continue their journeys under relatively new or new head coaches in varying degrees of rebuilding.

And then there’s France.


Now in their fifth season under Fabien Galthié, Les Bleus appear to have gone alarmingly backwards, and to some extent the tournament has suffered accordingly. The Ireland-France games had been the standout, tournament-defining fixtures of the last two seasons and had elevated the Six Nations to levels beyond all other matches.

This year, that opening night matchup between the two was perhaps tournament defining again, in its own premature way. Whoever won that opening clash on that febrile Friday night in the Orange Vélodrome was always going to give themselves a turbocharged cure for their World Cup hangover. But whoever lost would have their World Cup woes compounded.

For the victors, another Six Nations title beckoned and, with that, even the distinct possibility of a Grand Slam. It pushed the World Cup further into the rear-view mirror. Not so the vanquished, for whom the immediate balm of a Grand Slam and quite probably the Six Nations title was immediately gone before anyone else had kicked a ball in anger.

Since the World Cup, assistant coaches Laurent Labit (backs coach) and Karim Ghezal (assistant forwards coach) had left. Galthié's appointment of Patrick Arlettaz, whose Perpignan side has oscillated between the ProD2 and the Top 14, and Laurent Sempéré, formerly the Stade Francais forwards coach, has thus far failed to galvanise the French.

The degree to which France’s decline had already set in or was exacerbated by the decisive nature of Ireland’s 38-17 win over France in Marseille is a matter of conjecture. But it must have reopened old World Cup war wounds for Les Bleus to some extent. Straight away, they looked a little like the all-conquering Irish team of 2018 which was derailed by England in the opening round of the 2019 Six Nations, after which Joe Schmidt admitted they were “a little bit broken”.

France could, and perhaps should, now be sitting in last place with three defeats but for a referee/TMO’s call over the last play in Murrayfield and then Paolo Garbisi hitting the upright with a penalty in overtime in Lille last Sunday, which referee Christophe Ridley should have had retaken 10 metres closer to the posts after Francois Cros and Sebastien Taofifenua had run forward separately as the Italian outhalf addressed the penalty

Last Sunday’s lucky 13-all draw comes less than five months since France beat Italy 60-7 in Lyon, which demonstrates both the low ebb which the Azzurri found themselves in during Kieran Crowley’s endgame, as well as the impetus generated by Gonzaloa Quesada. But perhaps most of all it crystallises this French team’s sharp decline under Galthié.

A World Cup on home soil was a once in a lifetime opportunity, and if Ireland weren’t to do it, France winning Le Mondial for the first time ever, in Paris, would have been beautiful. It must have been something that Galthié and the rest of the squad had dreamed of achieving. Now, even if Galthié is still around in four years’ time in Australia and France win the World Cup, which increasingly looks fanciful, it could never equate to reaching the Holy Grail on home soil.

Even in their continuing utterances about their contentious World Cup quarter-final loss to South Africa, it’s clear they haven’t let it go. In truth, this French team were never the most evolved attacking team through the phases, instead playing the percentages and often scoring through their power game, off their defence or the individualism Romain Ntamack, Thomas Ramos, Mathieu Jalibert or particularly Antoine Dupont.

But Dupont has sought refuge in pursuing Olympic Sevens gold in Paris and without him France have lost seemingly all of their X factor, for one presumes not even Napoleon Bonaparte, much less Galthié, would have tried to rein in the world’s best player.

Having also lost Labit, what’s left is an overly prescribed and prescriptive team. The joie de vivre with which the Bordeaux/Begles, Toulouse, Racing and La Rochelle players had been playing has been replaced by joylessness.

They look like they are playing in tactical straitjackets, and now, in addition to Ntamack, Jalibert is sidelined for six weeks as well.

Former player Richard Dourthe, one of the original members of an increasingly large band of critics, said: “Jalibert knows how to play rugby, but here he played like s***. We need new blood and with a different mindset as it will be complicated for the head coach to rouse this present moribund team from its torpor and for it to rediscover the hunger and the happiness that comes with playing they once had.”

There would appear to be two ways of looking at this. Either Galthié is doomed or, like Napoleon, he is a lucky general.

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