Six Nations: Five things we learnt about France v England
From the red zone to replacements, Gavin Mortimer looks at five key findings from France’s loss to England in round one of the Six Nations
For the third consecutive Test match France have fallen just short. Beaten 25-23 by Australia in November, 24-19 by the All Blacks a week later and now edged out 19-16 by England on Saturday. Hence the plaintive cry on the front page of Monday’s Midi Olympique lamented ‘When is the happiness?’ Coach Guy Noves will hope it arrives on Sunday afternoon, when France host Scotland at the Stade de France, but while he ponders his team selection, here are five things we learnt from France’s defeat to England…
1. Peerless Picamoles
Since making his Test debut in 2008, Louis Picamoles has struggled for consistency. His best rugby has tended to come on a summer tour or at a World Cup when he’s in a hothouse environment, advantageous for his physical and mental wellbeing. Moving to Northampton was a bold and brave move on the part of the 31-year-old, a cultural as well as a rugby challenge, and it’s one that has paid off. Fitter than he’s ever been, Picamoles made 131 metres against England with 16 carries, a tireless performance that so nearly inspired France to victory.
2. Too much Toulouse
Guy Noves coached Toulouse for 20 years but it’s time he cut the umbilical cord with the club he turned for a time into Europe’s finest. In recent seasons they’ve become a ‘comfort-zone club’, idols in the city but idle on the training park. The message may finally be getting through to Noves – Maxime Medard and Sebastien Bezy have been dropped this season – but the one-dimensional Yann David should never have been called up last month, and Jean-Marc Doussain should be nowhere near the French squad. Yoann Maestri and Cyril Baille’s places in the starting XV should also come under scrutiny this week.
3. Red zone errors
France made 17 line breaks to New Zealand’s six in November’s Test, and against England they made 13 to their hosts’ eight. And yet for all that, les Bleus managed just two tries – both scored by forwards. What’s letting France down is their execution in the red zone. They’re creating opportunities but as Remi Lamerat demonstrated in the first half against England their dodgy decision-making is costing them dear. If the Clermont centre had slipped the ball inside to the unmarked Noa Nakaitaci, France would have scored on the stroke of half-time. But Lamerat went for glory himself and was bundled into touch by the English defence.
4. A barren bench
The force was with the French as the match entered the final quarter. Rabah Slimani had scored the first try of the match and the visitors sensed victory was within their grasp. Then the benches came into play. While England introduced Jamie George, James Haskell, Danny Care, Jack Nowell and Ben Te’o, the French had nowhere near that strength to call upon. The decision to replace fly-half Camille Lopez with Doussain was bizarre and, as it turned out, costly. The truth is France are desperately thin in some areas, and one wonders how they would cope if Lopez, Picamoles or hooker Guilhem Guirado hobbled off early against Scotland.
5. Rabah’s roar
The one player who made a positive difference for France from the bench was Rabah Slimani, scoring a try and winning a penalty for his side at the scrum. The 27-year-old tighthead endured a torrid 2015-16, his form affected by personal problems off the field and accusations of illegal scrummaging on it. Clermont forwards coach Didier Bes was the first to go public with the accusations, in the wake of Stade Francais’ destruction of his pack in November 2015. The allegations concerned Slimani’s habit of binding under an opponent’s armpit and then swinging him down. Referees began to penalise Slimani and his loss in confidence coincided with Stade Francais’ collapse in form. Now his self-belief is back, he’s scrummaging well (and wisely), and his inclusion ahead of Uini Atonio would worry the Scots.
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