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Today’s golden generation: The French glamour boys

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Roar Rookie
4th July, 2023
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The “golden generation” label was made for the shiny new France team that burst onto the world stage in 2020.

A decade of underachievement was swept away in a flash, along with a largely unchanged Eddie Jones England team that, lest we forget, had powered into the Rugby World Cup final a few months earlier.

Les Bleus were energetic and young, as confident and beautiful as their rugby.

So why not empty that bottle of 2016 Châteauneuf du Pape into the decanter. Pour a generous serving into a glass, put your feet up and enjoy the story so far of l’ultime generation doree. The foundations they’re built on, their rapid rise and what their future might hold.

Everyone else beware – their story has barely begun.

Benefitting from the Nazis

First some history. Compared with South Africa, New Zealand, England and Wales, France are relative newcomers to rugby’s top table.

Prior to World War Two they hadn’t won a single Five Nations tournament or beaten any of the three main Southern Hemisphere teams.

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They were even banned from the Five Nations during the 1930s for suspected professionalism and violent play. Many players defected to the open professionalism of rugby league, to the extent that by the end of the decade the the fledgling rebels were already European champions in their code.

League was growing and winning, rugby was nowhere.

Over the next twenty years France became a great rugby nation and the game changer was World War II. League was “socialist” whereas rugby was cosy with the Vichy collaborators.

League was therefore banned and everything they owned was handed over to rugby. It’s never been returned and French league has never recovered.

Buoyed by the influx of players, infrastructure and equipment French rugby was transformed. Australia was defeated in 1948 before an absolutely incredible triumph ten years later.

A draw in Cape Town was followed by a Dolly Parton ‘nine to five’ win at Ellis Park in the second and final Test, making France the first nation to win a series in South Africa.

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New Zealand is the only country to emulate this achievement – but not before France did it again just after the Boks’ restoration in the early 90s.

In the Five Nations, France obtained their first two shared titles in the 50s and won it outright in 1959. Since then they’ve never looked back – easily the most Five or Six Nations titles post 1959 and only England can rival their record against the Southern Hemisphere giants.

Powered by great wealth and the biggest player numbers in the world, they have been truly one of rugby’s powerhouses, although clearly behind at least New Zealand and South Africa most of the time.

All achieved playing the most beautiful, spontaneous rugby in the world. And the most brutal. Such are the myriad contradictions of French rugby.

Damian Penaud of France celebrates early as he sees a clear path to scoring their 5th try during the Guinness Six Nations Rugby match between England and France at Twickenham Stadium on March 11, 2023 in London, United Kingdom. (Photo by Charlotte Wilson/Offside/Offside via Getty Images)

Damian Penaud of France (Photo by Charlotte Wilson/Offside/Offside via Getty Images)

More cliches and history: The World Cup ERA

In World Cups though, they’ve so far been the least of the modern Titans. Of the big five rugby nations that have appeared in Rugby World Cup finals along with New Zealand, South Africa, Australia and England, France are the only one never to have picked up Old Bill. Why?

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Cliches abound about the Gallic temperament and how it impacts on their rugby. Overwhelming when fired up and on a roll, but liable to fall apart in the next match or next minute. Prone to massive bust ups and mutinies. Brilliant but inconsistent.

In World Cups they might be able to unearth one huge fired up performance when least expected. The crazy semi final against Australia in 1987, culminating in Serge Blanco’s joy in the left corner of the rectangular Concord Oval.

Wave upon wave of blue jerseys powering through and around the bewildered All Blacks at the same stage in 1999; 33 unanswered points in half an hour.

All after being ploughed into the Twickenham cabbage patch 24-10 by Jonah Lomu in the first 45 minutes.

Then we saw McCaw’s magnificents’ inevitable coronation cancelled in 2007. And finally a mutinous rabble, luckily sneaking into the final, then putting up a defiant last stand for a near repeat after four more years.

Like South Africa and England, France’s World Cup peaks have tended to come at neat twelve year intervals. Finalists in 1987, 1999 and 2011, fitting nicely into the twelve year generational cycles described in the first article in this series. They are due another this year.

Sadly though, they’ve never been able to back up a huge quarter or semi final performance with anything other than an insipid defeat. France has been rugby’s ultimate enigma.

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Antoine Dupont of France breaks through to score their side's third try during the Guinness Six Nations Rugby match between France and England at Stade de France on March 19, 2022 in Paris, France. (Photo by David Rogers/Getty Images)

Antoine Dupont of France breaks. (Photo by David Rogers/Getty Images)

A decade of despair spurs France into action

As the 2010’s rolled on, the sense of underachievement only got worse. One might have thought that having the best club league in the world would be good for the national team but it was quite the opposite.

Instead, as their club league overpowered the rest of Europe off the field, Les Bleus were unable to add to their 2010 Six Nations title on it. Despite their player numbers they were consistently outperformed by smaller, more centrally run, rugby nations.

Clubs prioritised ready-made foreign journeymen ahead of French youth and tired everyone out with their ten month club season. Even their academies were populated by foreigners, as French high school sports provision plummeted.

Something had to be done.

This seemed unlikely considering the notorious self interest of the clubs, but it happened. Perhaps they realised that their laissez-faire system of player recruitment wasn’t good for them, just as it wasn’t good for the France national team.

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Not every club had a billionaire owner willing to keep pouring tens of millions into rugby without the prospect of a return. Stuff reported that in 2013/14 alone French clubs had combined deficits of $43m and enough was enough.

They weren’t even all that successful in Europe, with the massively subsidised galactico of Toulon the only French club to win the Heineken Cup between Toulouse’s latest triumphs in 2010 and 2021.

Since 2010, the Federation Francaise de Rugby has gradually both reduced the ability of clubs to stack their teams & academies with overseas players and improved the provision of grass roots coaching for the youth.

Players also don’t play quite as many games in a season as they did, although it’s still more than many other countries.

France celebrate after beating the Wallabies

It is a recipe for sustainable success that didn’t come overnight just by throwing money at the top of the pyramid. They’d tried that for years.

Instead this slight balance shift from club to country might just result in a new long term ceiling for the national team. Even enough to come somewhere near the level that their player numbers suggest.

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A bit like how Australia’s centralised coaching system from the 1970’s and Ireland’s current development pathways moved those nations onto a whole new plane.

They’re still young

The rugby world began to take notice when France won back to back World Under 20s titles in 2018 and 2019. The following year it sat bolt upright as on a sodden winter Paris afternoon, the new golden generation feasted on rosbif.

This was despite the raw inexperience of the team – only Gael Fikou had fifty caps (just!) with the next highest Bernard Le Roux on 37.

It’s difficult for a young team to be consistent and ruthless. So it proved for France in the 2020 and 2021 Six Nations, with unheralded Scotland proving their kryptonite both years when the silverware beckoned.

Even that glorious win against England ended in their superstar scrum half Antoine Dupont thinking that time was up and gifting Owen Farrell the losing bonus point that ultimately cost France the title.

The brilliance is still there though and the team is maturing nicely. A fourteen-match winning streak from July 2021 to February 2023 including a 2022 Grand Slam is testament to that.

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It can be seen in the play of Dupont, curbing the risks and increasing the consistency. That tendency for French self destruction seems to have been overcome.

Nevertheless, there have been minor wobbles. Unconvincing last November, bridesmaids again this northern spring. They looked tired.

The best is yet to come

As the Six Nations began this year Fikou was still the only player with fifty caps. Rarely do golden generations win their first World Cup, not even McCaw’s all conquering magnificents in 2007. Is this inexperienced French team to suffer a similar fate this October?

If so, there’s every reason to believe that, like the All Blacks from 2008 to 2015, France can come back stronger and stronger over a sustained period. Today’s success is built on very broad grass roots foundations while those quality under 20s teams keep on coming through.

As the likes of halves Dupont, Romaine Ntmack and Matthieu Jailibert mature to their peak, they will be supported by a whole new generation of stars.

With all that money, those huge playing numbers, three whole divisions of professional teams churning out players and the worst excesses of the clubs under control, the sky is the limit. France may well have shifted their ceiling long term so that runner up medals will become gold medals time and again.

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So long as they aren’t scuppered by that ten-month soap opera tiring out players and shortening careers. And if strategic direction or the balance between club and country aren’t lost following the conviction of FFR boss Bernarde Laporte. And so long as they really have learnt how not to self destruct…

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Have you enjoyed watching France’s young golden generation? Do you think that they have a new, World Cup winning resilience or are they still doomed to be the bridesmaids?

Have they strengthened the lower levels of the pyramid to create a higher ceiling of performance for the long term, beyond this golden generation? And is this generation still not at its peak?

Over to you.

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