Can France bounce back from their World Cup disappointment without Depleted and Dupont?
‘We would be kidding ourselves not to speak about it,” William Servat said. France’s forwards coach was first up to face the press as Six Nations preparations began last week and, inevitably, he was asked about the World Cup quarter-final defeat by South Africa and how the team would respond.
After three and a half months, the players have accepted the painful early elimination on their own turf, according to Servat. He also mentioned the need to use this disappointment as motivation for the upcoming Ireland game. The former hooker informed the team during a debrief at the Marcoussis training center upon their return for the Six Nations.
Earlier this week, Thomas Ramos mentioned that the upcoming match against Andy Farrell’s Ireland team, which could potentially determine the championship, does not allow for any hesitation from the team. The dynamic full-back, who was recently selected by Fabien Galthié to join the six-player leadership group, is eager to focus on the task at hand: “If we defeat Ireland and have a successful tournament, perhaps there will be less discussion about the World Cup.”
However, starting the second phase of the Galthié era against a similarly revanchist Ireland team is not the easiest task. The challenge is even more daunting due to the extended absence of Antoine Dupont.
The scrum-half has opted to participate in the Olympics playing sevens instead, leaving the head coach without his influential captain and main strategist. Despite the coach stating that Dupont’s break was premeditated, it still leaves Galthié with a shortage of players during a critical period of his leadership.
There is no one French player who can match the impact of the 2021 world player of the year, but there are several who will be in the spotlight in his absence. Damian Penaud is close to breaking Serge Blanco’s record of 38 tries for Les Bleus. Matthieu Jalibert, currently in good form, will be the starting fly-half for the first time in the Six Nations since 2021, while Romain Ntamack continues to recover from his World Cup injury. Gaël Fickou will be looking to redeem himself after a disappointing tournament. Louis Bielle-Biarrey, who made a name for himself with four tries last autumn, will aim to solidify his position on the wing.
Dupont’s substitute will be Maxime Lucu, supported by Nolann Le Garrec from Racing 92. The Basque scrum-half, Lucu, was a clear decision – he performed well in the World Cup games when Dupont was absent due to a cheek injury and has played a crucial role in Bordeaux’s accomplishments this season. His partnership with his club colleague Jalibert will be a valuable advantage for France’s ambition to achieve a grand slam; “We are like an established couple, but without the boredom,” he shared with Midi Olympique last week.
However, the most unexpected decision was the selection of Grégory Alldritt as temporary captain. Many would have assumed that Charles Ollivon, who was initially chosen to lead the team four years ago under Galthié, would have been the obvious choice.
Alldritt’s decision to join the team was influenced by his Scottish heritage. The head coach noted that he has a good understanding of Anglo-Saxon mindsets and is fluent in the language. Additionally, being 26 years old, he is more likely to be a member of the squad for the 2027 World Cup since he is four years younger than Ollivon.
Alldritt made the decision to take a two-month hiatus following the World Cup in order to recuperate both mentally and physically from his demanding schedule. Since returning to play, he has continued to perform strongly for Les Maritimes. According to France’s new performance director Nicolas Jeanjean, Alldritt’s extended break is an unprecedented move in modern French rugby and may set a precedent for future players and clubs.
France has multiple players who will be absent for the start of the tournament, such as Dupont, Ntamack, Thibaud Flament, Melvyn Jaminet, and Emmanuel Meafou. Additionally, Anthony Jelonch will be facing a long-term layoff due to his second cruciate ligament injury in one year.
Even though some important players were missing, the changes in the team after the World Cup have not been as extreme as expected. In fact, two experienced forwards, Uini Atonio and Romain Taofifénua, have changed their minds and decided to continue playing for France. A significant number of the players selected this week are over 30 years old, which is a big change compared to Galthié’s initial squads. As the new forwards coach Laurent Sempéré described it, most of them have already been through the “shared experience” of the loss to South Africa.
Galthié and Servat have emphasized the importance of maintaining continuity in the overall project, even with the addition of new staff members. This includes two mental coaches who speak to the players at the beginning of each week. Sempéré, who works with Servat to lead the forwards, believes it is crucial to consider the larger context: “We must not separate the World Cup from the previous four years.”
At the start, Nicolas Depoortère from Bordeaux was the sole player from the Under-20 World Cup winning team to move up to the senior squad for the Six Nations tournament. In last Thursday’s practice, five promising players were called up for the day, including Perpignan’s Posolo Tuilagi. These day-long appearances, as part of the agreement between FFR and Top 14 regarding player releases, provide an opportunity for the younger generation to secure spots on future squads.
After any doubts about his qualifications were resolved, Tuilagi displayed his skills during the recent training session, with his father Henry, a former player for Samoa, in attendance. Posolo, a highly-touted second-row player, has also been added to the larger team for their upcoming match against Ireland at Marcoussis.
The French team, known as Les Bleus, will still aggressively approach their match in Marseille on Friday, relying on experienced players rather than introducing new faces. Despite being short-handed and without Dupont, France will continue on, hoping that their loss in October did not halt the progress they had made in the past four years.
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