The admiring tone that greeted the performance of a young French side beaten in extra-time in the Autumn Nations Cup final at Twickenham by Six Nations champions England was thoroughly deserved.
Fabien Galthie’s side suffered the rough edge of several key officiating glitches on the day that irked them in the immediate aftermath but it won’t diminish the overriding satisfaction gleaned from the team’s display, on foot of less than a fortnight’s preparation.
France were without 25 frontline players due to an agreement with the League National de Rugby (LNR) that the clubs had precedence in terms of players that weekend; several others were missing through injury. Looking to label the French team that took the pitch at Twickenham several commentators referred to it as a third-choice XV.
It matters not a jot but what is interesting is it once again highlighted Galthie’s commitment to endorsing the claims of talented young players in a pragmatic and structured manner.
In 2016 an Ireland under-20 team coached by Nigel Carolan reached the Junior World Championship final and from that group, captain James Ryan, Andrew Porter, Max Deegan, Jacob Stockdale, Hugo Keenan and Shane Daly – Will Connors played in the Under-20 Six Nations that season and was injured for the global tournament – have progressed to the senior national side.
It's an impressive strike-rate and there may be one or two more from that group – Jimmy O'Brien has been excellent for Leinster during the lockdown period – that may soon bridge the gap from underage to senior Test level.
The French team at Twickenham last weekend had five players, captain and scrumhalf Baptiste Couilloud, hooker Pierre Bourgarit, secondrow Baptiste Pesenti, flanker Anthony Jelonch and replacement hooker Peato Mauvaka who played against Ireland in the 2016 Under-20 Six Nations.
The French Rugby Federation (FFR) has belatedly realised the importance and value of identifying and organising their age-grade structures, of introducing a limit to the number of foreign players permitted in the Top 14, and rewarding clubs for producing and nurturing domestic talent.
The net result allied to Galthie's vision is already visible at senior Test level and it's likely to keep improving as France look toward the 2023 Rugby World Cup on home soil; they look like being competitive in both the short and the medium term.
In 2018 and 2019 the France under-20s won the World Junior Championships, the first tournament on home soil when they beat England 33-25 in the final and last year in Argentina when squeezing past Australia 24-23 in the decider.
There were a number of players who played both years but looking at the 2018 squad for the Six Nations and World Cup nine players have been capped at senior level: Romain Ntamack (18 caps), Demba Bamba (14), Arthur Vincent (seven), Jean Baptiste Gros (five), Cameron Woki (four), Hassan Kolingar (two), Killian Geraci (two), Pierre Louis Barassi (two) and Louis Carbonel (two).
From the class of 2019, centre Julien Delbouis, wing Matthis Lebel and flanker Sacha Zeguer were initially included in the recent Nations Cup squad but the first two named had to withdraw through injury. Centre Yoram Moefana, who played in the final against England, was a member of the French 20s earlier this year.
In referencing those same years from an Irish perspective only Rónan Kelleher has been capped at senior level. Ireland, under Noel McNamara, won a Grand Slam in the 2019 Six Nations and were on course to do so again this year – three wins from three matches – when the tournament was abandoned due to Covid 19.
So what about the discrepancy in numbers between the young players coming through in Ireland and France latterly? A key difference is the stepping stone to senior Test level. Of the French players listed the overwhelming majority have played for their clubs in the Top 14 and European Champions/Challenge Cup on 10 occasions are more, some considerably so and several are first choice to boot.
The gap in standard from French Top 14/European to international s is considerably smaller than the jump from Pro 14, especially in international windows, to Test matches. Irish rugby possesses oodles of young talent across the four provinces but for them to compete for places in the national set-up they must first make Champions Cup matchday squads.
Being third or fourth choice at a province is not a compelling argument for inclusion in Andy Farrell’s squad. A further complication is that the provinces and Ireland aren’t aligned, understandably at times, when it comes to player selection. It’s a tough obstacle to clamber past.
For Craig Casey, Ben Healy, Gavin Coombes, Ryan Baird, Harry Byrne, Scott Penny, Jimmy O'Brien, Stewart Moore and James Hume to highlight a few standout young players, it's all about taking that next step and muscling into European matchday 23s, starting this weekend. Only then will international rugby be a realistic ambition.
2018 Under-20 Six Nations: France 34 Ireland 24
FRANCE U20: C Laporte; I Etcheverry, P-L Barassi, A Vincent, M Marty; R Ntamack, A Coville (capt); H Kolingar, M Lamothe, D Brennan; K Geraci, T Lavault; C Woki, I Diallo, M Lemardelet.
Replacements: D Bamba for Brennan (28-40 and 54 mins); B Heguy for Woki (half-time); U Boniface for Kolingar (54 mins); L Carbonel for Ntamack (57 mins); J Gimbert for Colville (58 mins); L Peyresblanques for Lamothe (61 mins); A Roussel for Diallo.
IRELAND U-20: M Silvester; P Sullivan, D McCarthy, T O'Brien (capt), J McCarthy; H Byrne, J Stewart; J Duggan, R Kelleher, J Aungier; C Daly, J Dunne; M Dalton, A Hall, J O'Sullivan.
Replacements: S Masterson for Hall (half-time); T O'Toole for Aungier (54 mins); A Kernohan for Sullivan (54-65 mins); H O'Sullivan for Stewart (64 mins); R Coffey for Daly (68 mins); D Barron for Kelleher (70 mins); J French for Duggan (73 mins).
2019 Under-20 Six Nations: Ireland 31 France 29
IRELAND U20: J Flannery; A Kernohan, L Turner, S French, J Wren; B Healy, C Casey; J Wycherley, D Tierney-Martin, T Clarkson; C Ryan, N Murray; M Moloney, S Penny, J Hodnett.
Replacements: R Baird for N Murray (53 mins); C Reid for Wycherley, J McKee for Tierney-Martin, Rob Russell for J Flannery (all 65 mins); C Foley for Casey (68 mins); Jake Flannery for Kernohan (73 mins).
FRANCE U20: A de Nardi; V Pinto, A Vincent, J Delbouis, M Lebel; L Carbonel, Q Delord; J-B Gros, R Barka, A Burin); G Maravat, F Vanverberghe; P Boudehent, S Zegueur, J Joseph.
Replacements: M Lemardelet for Boudehent (46 mins); E Eglaine for Gros, G Beria for Burin (both 55 mins); M Smaili for Delbouis, A Warion for Vanverberghe (65 mins); L Zarantonello for Barka (66 mins), K Viallard for Q Delord (75 mins).