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The Breakdown | France’s next generation offers Fabien Galthié hope of bright future
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The Breakdown | France’s next generation offers Fabien Galthié hope of bright future

“Maybe we recover a bit quicker than the older players,” France’s Léo Barré playfully pointed out in the buildup to their Six Nations finale against England. The versatile Stade Français back had been one of several newcomers to inspire a sorely-needed win over Wales in the penultimate round that had finally lifted Les Bleus up from their post-World Cup slump. The team’s director of performance, Nicolas Jeanjean, was more definitive in his praise of the debutants: “They bring along their mental insouciance and their physical energy, we can see that in the data but also subjectively”.

It’s precisely that insouciance which has characterised the way Nolann Le Garrec has (temporarily) made the No 9 shirt his own – not least in his 35-metre reverse pass at the Principality Stadium. The Breton may not hail from the country’s south-western rugby heartlands, but that chistera – a term borrowed from the basket-shaped glove used in Basque pelota – channelled decades’ worth of French flair.

There is an argument that the 21-year-old did benefit from a reinvigorated pack and cleaner ball at the breakdown in comparison to Maxime Lucu in earlier matches. With his speed at the breakdown and tactical ease, though, it soon became evident that the 21-year-old was ready to take over in Antoine Dupont’s absence. His tracking run to finish off France’s opening try against England – his second in as many starts – was particularly reminiscent of the Toulouse man, who will now surely be kept on his toes on his return from Sevens duty after this Olympic summer.

While Posolo Tuilagi did not take part in the final flourish – he missed the Wales game through illness and returned to U20 action the week after – it was the Perpignan forward’s introduction to the team that proved the catalyst for Les Bleus’ rejuvenation. For his first start, against Italy, the Catalan had been one of the few French players to make his presence felt. Once the teenager came in to (quite literally) shake things up, it opened the door for the rest of his cohort to be afforded their own chances.

Bordeaux’s Nicolas Depoortère had a tougher introduction to Test rugby. For most of the tournament, the U20 World Cup winner was shuttled back and forth from the national training centre in Marcoussis, but never included in matchday squads. He did continue to shine for Les Girondins in the meantime, including a sensational end-to-end try against Racing 92. When his chance came, Depoortère – admittedly in a slightly unfamiliar position as inside centre – struggled to carry over that form, although his defensive frailties were hardly an isolated case for France this year.

Nolann Le GarrecView image in fullscreen

The new generation is aware that they still have some way to go before fully graduating as XV de France regulars. For Barré himself, it was precisely the veterans who decided the England match in Lyon. “I’m one of those who made mistakes that could have cost us dearly”, he said, despite having just been named the player of the match. It’s no coincidence, though, that the older players’ best performances of the tournament came once Fabien Galthié had shaken up the starting lineup – Gaël Fickou, for instance, looked more like the seasoned veteran that his 90 caps suggest, after some middling performances during the autumn.

There doesn’t seem to have been a post-tournament dip in form for the newcomers, in any case. Barré made use of his impressive boot to find a 50-22 that helped Stade Français snatch a late win over Lyon on Saturday, keeping the team top of the standings. Le Garrec’s 77th-minute penalty saw Racing 92 pip Castres to a 23-21 win. Depoortère was back to his best in Bordeaux’s thrilling win over Toulouse (although it was his opposite number Paul Costes who stole the show). After their breakthrough Six Nations campaign, the new cohort is focused on qualifying their teams for the upcoming Top 14 playoffs. The prevailing argument used to be that the domestic league’s strength in foreign talent hindered the development of young players – now, it’s the young French players who are the stars of the show.

At the start of the Six Nations, Galthié had been criticised for an inflexible fidelity to his underperforming long-time starters. As he indicated in his post-tournament interview with L’Équipe, though, he believes young players need to be “immersed” in the team before being thrown into senior test rugby. Le Garrec, Galthié pointed out, had been part of the senior set-up since the 2022 tour of Japan, even if his first cap only came last month.

This summer’s tour in Argentina will provide the head coach with a lower-stakes opportunity to experiment. The likes of Émilien Gailleton, Marko Gazzotti, Maxime Lamothe and Lenni Nouchi were involved in midweek training sessions with the senior team over the last few weeks, and will look to consolidate on that experience when they are handed their first caps.

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There won’t be a complete turnover just yet, though, with many of the veterans ostensibly locked in for the next four years. Even Uini Atonio – who turns 34 on Tuesday – looks set to remain part of the team over the long term, having initially retired at the end of the World Cup: “I’m here to accompany the younger players – If I’m needed for Argentina, then I’ll go”, the prop explained.

Fully weeding out the trauma of the World Cup exit on home soil will likely be a drawn-out and arduous process, which may even take the whole proceeding four-year cycle. To get France back to their best, Galthié and his new-look staff intend to foster a symbiotic relationship between the stalwarts of his first quadrennial and the new players. One generation will “accompany” the other, and vice-versa, until the time comes for a full handover.

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Source: theguardian.com