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‘France promised to be all I enjoy about rugby. They’ve let me down’

MARSEILLE, FRANCE - FEBRUARY 2: Matthieu Jalibert of France in action during the Guinness Six Nations 2024 match between France and Ireland at Orange Velodrome on February 2, 2024 in Marseille, France. (Photo by Christian Liewig - Corbis/Getty Images)
MARSEILLE, FRANCE - FEBRUARY 2: Matthieu Jalibert of France in action during the Guinness Six Nations 2024 match between France and Ireland at Orange Velodrome on February 2, 2024 in Marseille, France. (Photo by Christian Liewig - Corbis/Getty Images)

When Ben O’Keeffe blew his full-time whistle last Saturday afternoon it marked the conclusion of round one of the Six Nations.

And amid the feelings of what could have been for Scotland after their Wales scare or for England with Italy breathing down their necks, it was France who left a longstanding and unsavoury aftertaste upon reflection.

Because Les Bleus have become everything you’re supposed to love about rugby: their head coach Fabien Galthie speaks as a poet would do reciting his favourite stanzas to an audience, their defence coach Shaun Edwards has the northern grit of rugby league and their players are fabulously true to French rugby history in being gloriously exciting but often too relaxed.

France lacked intent

In their 38-17 loss to Ireland at home in the opening game last Friday France showed they’re a team who have been unable to get over the loss of star players Antoine Dupont – who has prioritised the Olympic Games – and Romain Ntamack – who is injured.

They were without some bulk in their pack, too, and looked slightly devoid of ideas as Ireland pounded away at their line and took the majority of their opportunities.

And it was not an Ireland side many expected to win, it was a side without the talismanic Johnny Sexton. But the legendary No10 has already been left in the past and Andy Farrell’s men – with Jack Crowley pulling the strings – looked like they’d turned over a new leaf since their World Cup quarter-final exit.

Little has changed, but that is because Farrell insists World Cup cycles shouldn’t be adhered to – he believes the best XV available should always be picked.

That’s not to say France do not operate in the same way but their intensity looked short in Marseille, they looked a shell of themselves – even before Paul Willemse was given his red card marching orders by referee Karl Dickson.

Je ne sais quoi

This was supposed to be France’s era, building upon a home World Cup and a strong domestic league. But they stumbled at the first hurdle, in the very first game since their time in the spotlight.

They’re now, in all likelihood, going to need away wins in Scotland and Wales and home wins against England and Italy to be within a shot of winning this year’s Six Nations. It feels like a waste.

When you sit down and delve into the wormhole of French teams of the past, where the likes of Philippe Saint-André, Philippe Sella and Jean-Pierre Rives often sprinkled some “je ne sais quoi” over adoring fans, you don’t think of a clunky France. But that is what we saw at the weekend.

When Galthie speaks of rugby he talks as if the game is not a sport but a dance, a series of moves and motions that collaborate to produce aesthetically pleasing results.

That’s what we know French teams of old to have achieved and it’s what we have known French teams of recent to achieve. But what we saw last week was a shoddy off-Broadway production that left much to be desired.