Unpredictable France can pack a punch and test England's resolve

Michael Searles
Yoann Huget drops the ball as France succumb to a second-half collapse against Wales (Source: Getty)

On the face of it, England’s biggest battle when they meet France in the Six Nations on Sunday will be not succumbing to complacency following last weekend’s contrasting results.

In reality, France could still pose a significant threat to England’s Grand Slam dreams in Le Crunch, as it is known colloquially, such is the nature of their unpredictable and inconsistent side.

If Les Bleus turn up for the full 80 minutes at Twickenham, then they should not be ruled out of causing an upset, especially given the tiring exploits of Eddie Jones’s men in the historic victory over Ireland.

As England ran riot in Dublin, France gave the clearest and most relevant example yet of their erratic nature, surrendering a 16-0 lead at half-time to lose 19-24 against Wales.

It was the third time in a row they had let an advantage slip at the Stade de France, falling to defeats against both Fiji and South Africa during the autumn despite having led after 40 minutes.

The French have shown great potential, with promising young players coming through the ranks to complement their experienced stars, but they were ultimately let down by ill discipline and a lack of leadership against Wales.

Packing a punch

Head coach Jacques Brunel opted for a surprising combination of brute force in the forwards, with one of the heaviest packs in history at 962kg – or 120kg per person – along with flair in the backs, handing Six Nations debuts to Romain Ntamack, 19, and Damian Penaud, 22, while leaving bulldozing centre Mathieu Bastareaud out of the matchday squad completely.

After 40 minutes it looked a stroke of genius as France contended with the wet weather better and cruised to a half-time lead following tries from No8 Louis Picamoles and winger Yoann Huget.

But if their first-half performance was one of their best in recent years, then their second-half display was among their worst. Wales came out with renewed vigour and France showed little ability to adjust their game-plan.

As the heavy pack began to tire, and with ball-carrying Bastareaud completely exiled, there was little option but for France to try an alternative approach, which begs the question why there was no Plan B – particularly given that Plan A has so rarely been a success of late.

Lack of leadership

The revelation that lock Sebastien Vahaamahina, whose loose pass was intercepted by George North for the game-winning try, did not even know he was captaining the side for the final 22 minutes following Guilhem Guirado’s withdrawal, only added to the criticism from French media.

It was only after being asked by the referee what France wanted to do with a penalty that Vahaamahina realised he was now skipper. “I told the referee to address the captain,” he said. “He replied ‘you are the captain’. I didn’t even know I was a captain. The staff didn’t warn me.”

It is a damning indictment of the state of the team, but despite last weekend’s woes, they are a side that still possess the ability to cause England problems and Chris Ashton has warned that the French are at their most dangerous after their egos have been damaged.

“They will be up for the game against us a little bit more now,” said former Toulon wing Ashton. “If we know anything about the French, it’s that they love a reaction. They’ll definitely be putting everything into beating us.”

Ashton also questioned whether the French were up to the physical intensity of international rugby yet, however, claiming that the pace of their domestic league, the Top 14, is a lot slower.

As such, the French pack may need to sacrifice some of their bulk from last weekend in order to cope with the high intensity of England’s game, while Bastareaud could rejoin Wesley Fofana at centre.

For now, whether they stick or twist with the tactics from last weekend remains as much of a mystery as whether they will turn up and play their best rugby or collapse under the pressure, such is the unpredictable nature of the Les Bleus.