Gerry Thornley: France building nicely towards home World Cup
In Galthié and Edwards, Les Bleus have their best coaching ticket of professional era
Louis Carbonel, the fourth or fifth choice of around half a dozen French outhalves, landed two penalties against England. Photograph: Mike Hewitt/Getty Images
So the best was kept until last after all. In the Brexit week that’s in it, we probably should have guessed that the England-France Autumn Nations Cup final would go to extra-time.
Soon after that game, a message popped up on the phone from France with a picture of Irish referee Andrew Brace above the caption: Man of the Match alongside of an emoji of a sad face.
In the immediate and emotional aftermath of the match one France flanker, Cameron Woki, told France 2: “The game was mostly played on the referee’s decisions, it’s embarrassing.”
Soon afterwards, the French head coach Fabien Galthié regretted that the match was decided by little details, adding: “Especially the decisions of the referee, that’s what’s embarrassing.”
Much of their anger stemmed from three key moments in the 79th minute, with France leading 19-12 and on the verge of an improbable first win over England at Twickenham since 2007. Firstly, as he subsequently admitted, Billy Vunipola knocked the ball forward on the ground. A couple of phases later Owen Farrell also lost the ball forward on the ground before illegally reclaiming it with the French debutant number 8 Selevasio Tolofua in the jackal.
But instead of awarding France a penalty, Brace penalised the French replacement Pierre-Louis Barassi for subsequently being offside, which he was. In mitigation of Brace, both Vunipola’s knock-on, and especially that of Farrell’s double indiscretion, were in clear view of the assistant referee, Craig Evans, not to mention the TMO Ben Whitehouse.
To compound this, at the start of the second period, Brace incorrectly decreed that replacement backrower Sekou Macalou, in his third Test, knocked the ball forward when actually the ball had gone backwards off Tom Curry.
France had hounded England to within five metres of their own line, with Gabin Villiere competing hard for a penalty on the ground. But instead Brace brought play back for an English scrum inside their ten metre line, which two penalties later led to Farrell kicking the ‘golden points’.
The English celebrations were testimony to the extent such an inexperienced French side had pushed them for almost 100 minutes. The biggest takeaway from the Autumn Nations Cup was that France, undoubtedly, look the best bet of the eight competing nations to win the 2023 World Cup - the draw for which is being made next Monday - on home soil.
Galthié was missing 25 players on Sunday due to the agreement reached between the French Federation and the Ligue National de Rugby. Most of the aforementioned players would not have been known outside France. Their starting pack averaged exactly two caps per man. Louis Carbonel, the 21-year-old replacement in his second test, landed his two penalties. He would be about fourth or fifth choice of around half a dozen out-halves (compare and contrast with Ireland).
That they could put up such an organised, spirited and defensively resilient performance under the command of Shaun Edwards also re-affirmed that, at last, Les Bleus have their best coaching ticket perhaps of the professional era.
There were other feel-good takeaways from the tournament, not least Fiji’s 38-24 win over Georgia, even if this merely re-affirmed what the tournament had missed due to the cancellation of their first three games.
By the same token, the outbreak of Covid-19 in the Fijian camp also demonstrated how all concerned deserved credit for compiling and completing this hastily arranged international tournament.
Debutant back-rower Mesulame Kunavula scored a try on his Edinburgh home ground two weeks after the passing of his mother, and he had been unable to return home for the funeral. Nemani Nadolo marked his return to the test arena two years after retiring from international rugby by scoring a hat-trick and couldn’t contain his emotions when revealing how much it meant to him afterwards.
Georgia kept going until the very end of their fourth game and will surely have benefited hugely from their experiences over the past month. Even Wales could extract some positives from their 38-18 win over Italy, not least the return to form of Taulupe Faletau and the continuing all-round brilliance of Justin Tipuric.
We live in negative times. People are fed up and peed off with 2020, understandably so. While nothing would have satisfied some observers last Saturday at an empty Aviva, and Ireland’s previous performances drew plenty of criticism, not least from former players, they move on with a commanding win over Scotland and a positive base into the Six Nations.
True, only Caelan Doris and Hugo Keenan have broken into the team and become regular starters, and the team remains Johnny Sexton-dependent. Yet Andrew Porter has come of age and for all his critics Jacob Stockdale has offered another attacking dimension at fullback. He needs a few more games there now at Ulster.
Yes, he doesn’t offer the same sense of positional and aerial security at the back which Rob Kearney did, but Stockdale has shown counter-attacking, carrying, kicking and distribution skills. Each team has its own identity. This one is looking for theirs and just possibly Stockdale could yet be the right fit.
As for Porter, the coaches have considered reverting him to loosehead yet in light of Eric O’Sullivan’s cameo on debut, and with David Kilocyne to come back, that side of the scrum actually looks better stocked now than tighthead.
Most of all though, no less than Premier League grounds in the last few days and nights, what the other three games on the final weekend of the Autumn Nations Cup also highlighted was the impact of even a few hundred or a couple of thousand fans can have at games. Real, living, breathing, shouting, chanting, applauding fans - not the booing ones. Even through the TV screen, the effect was palpable, not just on the home team but on the contests themselves.
In whatever number, health and safety guidelines of course permitting, they can’t return to the Aviva Stadium or other Irish grounds too soon.