Following a torrid start to the 2020 Six Nations which saw the French upend both England and Wales, expectations for a revived French national team were starting to be realized.
When French rugby is in a good place, rugby is in a good place. France, known historically as one of the world’s most ambitious, entertaining, lethal sides, has in the past eight years seemed to lose its identity. Did they want to be a brutish, power team? A tactical kicking team? They didn’t know, and neither did the rest of the rugby world.
Well, under new coach and former captain Fabien Galthie, France has reclaimed that identity of a fast-paced, risk-taking, lightning-in-a-bottle side. Saturday’s 38-21 victory over Wales served as a beautifully scripted message to the rest of the teams in the Autumn Nations Cup that France is the favorite.
France is overwhelming opponents these days with speed, decision-making, and unpredictability. With threats all over the park and distributors to set them up, France is breaking the conventional method of playing rugby and doing it their own way, the French way; à la française.
Right now they are playing at a break-neck pace, employing an extremely quick forward pack to get themselves on the front foot. They are getting the ball out of the rucks within two seconds and hitting their highly mobile forwards at pace to try and get forward before the defense is set. Essentially, they are pitting their forwards in a race around the ruck with the opposition.
Key to this tactic, however, is dynamo French scrumhalf Antoine Dupont. You’re hearing it here first: Dupont is the best rugby player on the planet right now.
His pass off the deck is lightning quick and accurate, allowing France to play very quickly from the breakdowns. His manipulation of defenders and his vision both enable his teammates to run through massive gaps off his passes. His footwork, strength, and pace are far and away the best for a halfback in the past 20 years; think Shane Williams agility with Aaron Smith skills.
Yes this is enormous praise for a 23 year old, but he is the real deal.
Dupont’s role in the French attack cannot go understated. The risk of playing at such a rapid pace is your attack always has the propensity to go haywire. You need someone to get you out of a jam when things hit the fan, and few are better than Dupont. Often he’ll make something out of nothing and France is able to compose itself and reset. It may not seem a huge facet of the game, but it alleviates a tremendous amount of potential pressure off of the French team.
Cool Heads & Hot Feet Out Wide
If Dupont is the fire in the French machine, his fly-half partner Romain Ntamack is the ice. The 21-year-old son of former rugby standout Emile Ntamack is perhaps the coolest customer around wearing a 10-shirt. His decision making is well beyond his years, but he’s also not afraid to take chances when chances are there to be had.
Whether he’s kicking, passing, or taking on defenders, Ntamack is consistently making the right decisions and doing so with near-flawless execution.
France plays heavily off of Dupont at halfback, but it isn’t because they are hoping to keep the game tight. It’s a strategic tactic, with the goal of creating mismatches out wide to which they exploit brilliantly. The backline will scan and scan and scan, until after enough phases they see a slower forward out of place. Then, like a wild pack of wolves they take advantage of the weak link and attack in force.
Between Virimi Vakatawa, Gael Fickou, Ntamack, and Anthony Bouthier, France showed on Saturday they could knife through the Welsh defense at will once it was broken down and forced into disarray.
So Much Speed To Finish
France has a knack for making breaks, but it’s their ability to capitalize on them that’s going to set them apart in the next four years ahead of the 2023 World Cup. The French are extremely loaded with pace at every position, and in the open field they are rarely being caught. Wales figured this out the hard way over the weekend, allowing five sensational long range tries to be scored over the 80 minutes.
Watch France compete in the Autumn Nations Cup LIVE & On-Demand right here on FloRugby
If you want to see rugby at its finest this year, then watch France closely as they contend for the Autumn Nations Cup in November and December. The French are taking rugby and moving it in a more exciting, more ambitious direction which will be on full display as they take on Fiji, Scotland, Italy, and one of England/Wales/Ireland in the coming weeks.
They are the world’s most dangerous team in 2020. Don’t blink for more than a second, or you’ll miss these speedsters set the world alight.