Morgan Parra has been ousted, Jacques Brunel has axed Mathieu Bastareaud, and there is no room for Uini Atonio… the French have certainly been bold with their squad selection for the 2019 Rugby World Cup in Japan.
Despite all the change going on east of the channel, Les Bleus have nothing to fear going into this tournament and may even have reason to be optimistic after their 37-man group was announced last month. There’s a few reasons why that is the case, but one of the most significant is what the exclusion of Bastareaud and Atonio means for the brand of rugby they are likely to employ in the Far East.
We’ve grown used to a France side that favours bludgeoning their opponents, rather than relying upon guile and intelligence (that is not to say their team is wholly devoid of such qualities). That works sometimes, as Scotland have found out to their detriment, but no one is under the impression that brutality and brawn can defeat the All Blacks. In fact, it has hardly been helpful in downing the likes of England, Ireland and Wales on an even remotely regular basis.
Why doesn’t Brunel’s soon-to-be-changed game-plan work against the global elite? Their humiliating whitewash at the hands of New Zealand last summer goes some way to answering that question. Steve Hansen’s cohort are masters of possession and have unrivalled fitness levels, meaning they could gradually exhaust the hefty French lineup with a simple, yet methodical, plan of action, manoeuvring them around the park until they were on the brink of collapse.
From then on, it is rather straightforward for backs that are worth their salt to carve out opportunities. That is how the Europeans went from parity to a 41-point deficit in less than one half of rugby at Eden Park 13 months ago, with a similar collapse occurring in their 2019 Six Nations opening night loss to George North and the Welsh.
Of course, it is easy to dismiss a loss to the Kiwis as inconsequential given that you’re up against the side that reign supreme in the rugby world, but this was a pulverising which set the tone for a dire period in Les Bleus’ history – remember Fiji’s remarkable victory at the Stade de France during the autumn?
The Pacific islanders’ triumph demonstrates another issue with the previous approach. The visitors were certainly spectacular with ball in hand, but their defensive solidity proved that the bulldozing style is ill-advised when your opposition relishes physicality and has the clout to back it up. Bastareaud can crash into Fiji’s backline all he likes, Leone Nakarawa and co. aren’t going anywhere. It became clear that the tactic wasn’t working in that late November clash, but once a coach has decided to play that way, there is very little he can do to change it.
The starting lineup must be selected with size and power in mind if a steamroller game-plan is on the cards, with limited substitutions making it difficult to bring on the correct personnel for an entirely different approach.
Now, Brunel modifying their style is by no means a guarantee of success, but it gives them vastly improved odds of actually achieving something in Japan. Were they still trucking it up, it is unlikely they would have the mettle to overcome any of the top five teams in the world rankings. The unpredictability of French flair is a far deadlier weapon than the telegraphed pick-and-gos, and this is obviously a concern for England and Argentina, France’s Pool C rivals.
One other reason to be cheerful – if you’re backing Guilhem Guirado’s recruits – is that this squad features seven Toulouse players, with the southerners coming in off the back of a stellar 2018/19. They finished 15 points above second-placed Clermont in the regular season, before keeping the latter tryless as they were crowned Top 14 champions in Paris. Momentum and confidence are enormous at World Cups, making it a sizeable advantage to have so many players who are so used to winning.
Of the Rouge et Noir representatives, the most eye-catching inclusion is that of Sofiane Guitoune, the winger’s last cap coming in 2015. He collected 16 tries in 31 club appearances last term, producing numerous devastating displays out wide, using deft footwork and agility to wonderful effect.
Whether Guitoune is ultimately used as a winger or centre remains to be seen, but either way he will offer more than Bastareaud ever could. This is the type of rugby player France should be fielding, not a one-trick pony. All they must do now is ensure they’ve removed all other highly-predictable players from the group.
How worried are you about the French threat in England’s group in Japan?
By Ed Alexander