Can Wounded France Bounce Back?

 

In a country struggling to move on from the past, the history of the Championship could be a motivating factor for France.

In terms of drama, France's 17-38 defeat by Ireland in Marseille on the opening day of the Guinness Men's Six Nations adds the kind of Netflix-worthy spice to the fortunes of the French national team. Now they're looking to Edinburgh to rescue their 2024 campaign.

It was a real blow for Fabien Galthié and his team, whose emotions are understandably still raw following their Rugby World Cup 2023 quarter-final defeat to South Africa. It was a defeat that was widely commented on, constantly rehashed and, in the end, still not digested.

Because the French have always found it hard to turn the page. "What bothered me a little was that we were having difficulty projecting ourselves into that match," explains former centre Mathieu Bastareaud in the BastaShow. "You've got a team coming in, Ireland, who are overwhelming favourites. The guys have been preparing for this match for two or three weeks, and for two or three weeks I had the impression that we were still talking about the quarter-final.

"I'll take an example from a long time ago, but one that hurt France for a long time: the Rugby World Cup Final in 2011. We talked about it for maybe ten years … Then, when they were preparing for the quarter-final against South Africa in 2023, they were showing documentaries about Benazzi's try, or no try, at Rugby World Cup 1995. We tend to rehash things and I think that does us a serious disservice.”

This second defeat in a row, against Ireland, the world's second-ranked nation, has planted the seeds of doubt in people's minds. The triggers that have driven France's success over the last four years have not worked, the automatisms (particularly in the line-out) have disappeared, and the key areas (set-pieces) have not produced the expected performances.

While France bet on renewal to relaunch itself – with a new staff and new players – opponents Ireland put all their chips on stability.

"When it came to implementing our strategy, we didn't manage to do what we wanted to do. And that's something that really troubled us a little bit," conceded forwards coach William Servat, one of the survivors from the original Galthié coaching staff.

Once again, the defeat was widely dissected. But from now on, where will the French find the strength to bounce back?

The wound France was licking before the opening match of the Guinness Men's Six Nations is even worse today. "It's going to be a big game," anticipates former Scotland back-rower John Beattie, whose countrymen won their first match in 22 years in Cardiff in the first round.

"A French team that's been stung is pretty scary. I'm afraid that with 15 players, it's going to be a different game this weekend at Murrayfield.

"There's a wounded beast coming through. So that's the big question: can we keep up the good form against the big teams on the circuit who, in a way, were struggling last weekend? But we know they're going to be out for revenge, they're going to be drooling and they're going to be very hard to beat. It's going to be a big game."

Gregor Townsend, Scotland's coach, is not far from thinking the same. "France will be desperate to get a win on the back of the two defeats they’ve had – one in the World Cup and one against Ireland," he says.

"But we also have an opportunity to play in front of our supporters and make sure we deliver the game we did for 42 minutes [against Wales], and the last few minutes. Don’t forget those!

"I'm not worried about the lads. They're a group with character and ambition, and I'm sure they'll raise their heads again in the next match in Scotland," commented France’s absent leader Antoine Dupont a few days after the defeat, trying to pass on his positive vibes from afar.

History proves Dupont right. Since the Championship expanded to include six nations (2000), in other words over the 24 previous editions,  France has fallen in the first round in seven of them and only once, in 2013, have they ended up with the wooden spoon.

The French team coached by Philippe Saint-André lost their first match in Italy (23-18), then the second to Wales (6-16), then the third to England (23-13), then managed a narrow draw in Ireland (13-13) before bouncing back against Scotland (23-16).

On the other six occasions, France finished 3rd or 4th, except in 2006 when they managed the feat of finishing first despite their opening defeat. Is it this memory that could be recalled at Murrayfield on Saturday?

In fact, Scotland has often been the victim of France's fury. In 2003, Bernard Laporte's players lost their first match of the Championship (25-17 to England) but recovered in the second (38-3 to Scotland). History repeated itself in 2017.

It was the same story in 2009, with a 30-21 opening defeat in Dublin followed by a 22-13 victory over Scotland. The same thing happened last year with Ireland between round 2 and 3.

In 2000, 2007 and 2019, the match lost to England was avenged by a victory in the following round against Scotland. In 2014, the loss to Wales provided the fuel for victory over Scotland the following weekend. 2016 and 2018 were the exceptions when France were unable to bounce back.