France making timely advances

With a World Cup year coming up, it seems as if games with France are going to define the Joe Schmidt years

France’s Teddy Thomas takes possession during the Test against Australia at the Stade de France. Photograph: Reuters.

France’s Teddy Thomas takes possession during the Test against Australia at the Stade de France. Photograph: Reuters.

 

A natural born worrier if ever there was one, Joe Schmidt would have assiduously watched every minute of France’s compelling 29-26 win over Australia on Saturday night and, one suspects, he would not have enjoyed it unduly. Both in the short-term and longer-term, there were warning shots aplenty for Ireland.

Michael Cheika intends making changes this Saturday but if this includes reforming the Will Genia-Quade Cooper halfback partnership from the start after their late introduction last Saturday for the first time in almost a year, then such will be their desire this could make the Wallabies every bit as dangerous.

Indeed, with their visit to Twickenham on Saturday the finale to their five-match, four-Test tour a dress-rehearsal of their World Cup pool clash at the same venue next year, Saturday’s Test at the Aviva is something of a free shot. Given their capacity to play hard on the gainline and offer options with their work-rate off the ball, the Wallabies will ask altogether more questions of the Irish defence than the Springboks did.

It’s a big game, which could cement Ireland as the third highest ranked side in the world (in the year of a World Cup draw that would really have meant something) and demands all of Ireland’s attention.

Ultimately though, it seems as if games with France are going to define the Schmidt years. France produced their best performance in years last March when pushing Ireland to that dramatic, if deserved, win which clinched the Six Nations title, but have generally been floundering along under the hitherto conservative and uninspired reign of the likeable Philippe Saint-André.

Drawn together

Whether it’s the involvement of Serge Blanco on the management ticket, but Saint-André and Patrice Lagisquet and Yannick Bru have seemingly been liberated. Against Fiji the week before last they blooded seven new caps, four born in France, two in South Africa and one in New Zealand who has played for the Samoan under-20s.

Second Captains

Pick of them was the 21-year-old Biarritz product Teddy Thomas, now flourishing in the company of Johnny Sexton, Ronan O’Gara and co at Racing, as is the new French centre, 25-year-old Alexandre Dumoulin, as well as the South African-born Brive fullback Scott Spedding.

In addition, Saint-André’s 13th half-back partnership, Sebastien Tillous-Borde and Camille Lopez, may be the answer. Lopez, formerly of Bordeaux-Begles, has set Clermont alight this season after one season with relegated Perpignan. He is also, unlike several predecessors, a reliable goal-kicker, with the highest percentage ratio in the Top 14.

He takes the ball to the line and has both a running game and a clever, attacking kicking game. Within 43 seconds against Fiji, Thomas had gathered and scored with his first touch in Test rugby from a pinpoint Lopez crosskick and the winger went on to become only the second French player to score a hat-trick on his debut with two second-half tries.

Following on from that 40-15 win, Saint-André selected an unchanged team for the first time in his 30-match reign against Australia, with Thomas confirming a star has been born by bouncing, fending or stepping four Wallabies for a stunning individual try. That came from a willingness to move the ball wide, and there was also a new-found aggression in defence, with ballast off the bench and a potent scrum.

Pat Sanderson on Sky Sports described it as the most intense match of the November window and to have held on with 14 men will have done wonders for French morale.

False dawns

Of course, France have had false dawns before. In November 2012, they thrashed the Wallabies 33-6, beat Argentina 39-22 and completed a clean sweep over Samoa by 22-14. They began the ensuing Six Nations with defeats to Italy, Wales and England.

That calendar year yielded just two wins out of 11 Tests, at home to Scotland and Tonga, and it is quite conceivable that the demands of the Top 14 will take their toll on Les Bleus come the Six Nations. It is also rare that genuine World Cup contenders are put together less than a year in advance with a heavy sprinkling of newcomers. History has shown us that World Cup winning teams tend to be experienced but who knows?

Maybe, for example, the heavily-experienced All Blacks will be slightly over the top come the World Cup? It’s happened before, and the evidence of their scratchy win in Murrayfield last Saturday suggests they don’t have quite the strength in depth they think they have.

But French rugby doesn’t do logic as a rule. Also, insomuch as the World Cup draw appears favourable from an Irish perspective – beat France and Italy to earn a quarter-final against Argentina and thus avoid the All Blacks until the final – then the same must be true from a French point of view. Beat Italy and Ireland to earn a quarter-final against Argentina and thus avoid the All Blacks until the final.

And if anyone can spook the All Blacks in a one-off World Cup tie, it is assuredly France. The evidence could be brief and misleading but, damn and blast it, it looks like the French are back. Just like that. So French.

gthornley@irishtimes.com

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