With just two gameweeks left in this year’s Six Nations Championship, it is only France who remain in contention for the sought-after Grand Slam title. Les Bleus beat England and Italy in Paris before stunning Wales in a thrilling 27-23 victory at the Principality Stadium in Cardiff. Fabien Galthié’s side started the campaign as 6/1 outsiders to lift their first trophy in 10 years. However, following their three successive wins, they are now odds-on favourites in rugby betting odds, but how have France come from mediocrity to potential Grand Slam winners?
Well, following Les Bleus’ exit from the 2019 Rugby World Cup to Six Nations rivals Wales in the quarter-finals, France announced former scrum-half Galthié as their new coach – replacing Jacques Brunel, who coached France for just two years. Galthié called upon his ex-international teammate and former France captain Raphaël Ibañez to be his general manager, whilst former England rugby league international Shaun Edwards was brought in as an assistant coach. Grand Slam winning hooker William Servat is also part of the new set-up.
As focus quickly turned to the Six Nations, the 50-year-old took a massive risk in naming an extremely young 42-man squad. Galthié selected 19 uncapped players, with just one over the age of 30 and an average age of 24 – one of the youngest teams to ever take part in the competition, but a risk that has thus far paid off.
Les Bleus also changed their captain with 26-year-old Toulon flanker Charles Ollivon, who only has 14 France caps to date, taking over from Montpellier hooker Guilhem Guirado, who captained France for three years.
One new member of the training staff that can’t go without mention is lineout coach Karim Ghezal. The 38-year-old is one of the least experienced members of the back-room staff, but his work on one of the most crucial aspects of the game hasn’t gone unnoticed and was pivotal in France’s most recent victory over Wales. Les Bleus found themselves with a lineout five metres from the line, they formed a maul and lock Paul Willemse peeled away, smashing past Johnny McNicholl for France’s second try. As the camera cut to Galthié and Ibañez in the stands, they could be seen congratulating the technician.
Whilst the French side is the youngest in the competition, it doesn’t lack class. Toulouse scrum-half Antoine Dupont, who is only 23, is already being labelled one of the best in the world in his position. His fly-half partner Romain Ntamack, who is three years younger and was awarded Man of the Match against Wales, is also thriving on the Six Nations stage with 100% goal kicking accuracy against England and Wales. Who would have thought the pair could steal the spotlight from Ireland’s Conor Murray and Johnny Sexton?
30-year-old Bernard le Roux, who was adamant on calling it day for France following the World Cup, has been rejuvenated in Les Bleus’ pack, whilst 27-year-old Anthony Bouthier, who has only been playing professional rugby since the start of this season, has justified his selection in Galthié’s squad with top-class performances from full-back and scoring his first try against Wales.
Most teams with the experience of the current France squad would crumble against Wales, who have the most experienced squad in Six Nations history, at the ferocious Principality, but not France – they thrived. Just four players had experienced the atmosphere of the Cardiff ground in the past, although they still became the first French team to win in the Welsh capital in 10 years.
Following the win, Ibañez said: “We are lucky to have some very talented young players, and we give them confidence and trust. I’m really proud of the young front row who scrummaged well. When it comes to Grand Slam, I’ll let you do the talking and we’ll focus on continuing to work.”
France have Scotland, who have only beaten whipping boys Italy in their first three matches, at Murrayfield next and Ireland, who they haven’t won against in three years, in their last match at the Stade de France. Given Les Bleus performances compared to their competitors, you’d fancy their chances of a Grand Slam victory and many more in years to come.