When I was growing up in the 1990’s, French rugby seemed so full of flair and imagination. Even the kit was better!

Remember those classic light blue Adidas kits with white shorts and red socks? When was the last time a French national team played with the kind of thrilling unpredictability they used to be known for? I may be wrong, but in my mind the French identity started to fade around the same time as their kit changed.

A famous French rugby victory at Eden Park in 1994. Photo: Andrew Cornaga
A famous French rugby victory at Eden Park in 1994.
Photo: Andrew Cornaga

French rugby provided many standout moments

Many of the standout rugby moments for me growing up involve French sides. I still remember the scarves, the berets and the smell of cigar smoke while walking to Twickenham for my first ever international. Their Grand Slam was sealed by a 40 metre drop goal from peroxide blonde Thomas Castaignede. One of my favourite players of all time. I only hated him for a week or two after that!

The year before I had seen Brive unleash Sebastien Carrat on my beloved Leicester Tigers in the 1997 Heineken Cup Final. He was so fast it was unfair! In 1999 came one of my favourite ever rugby moments. Sitting on the sofa with my dad, watching Phillipe Bernat-Salles and Christophe Dominici streaking away in THAT World Cup Semi Final comeback. And how great were those Toulouse teams of the early 2000s? They were the highlight of many a lazy Saturday watching three or four European games back to back.

Where did the French flair come from?

The principal architect was Pierre Villepreux, a 34 cap fullback in the 1970’s turned incredibly successful coach. As is neatly explained by the World Rugby Hall of Fame website:

“It was as an innovative, free-thinking coach that Villepreux was revered throughout the rugby world. He took as his coaching creed ‘flexibility and adaptability, not organisation’ and espoused the traditional open French style of play.”

“In 1985 he coached Toulouse to their first national championship in 38 years and added two more titles in his time with the club while working alongside Jean-Claude Skrela. That partnership was renewed when, after a disappointing showing at Rugby World Cup 1995, Skrela replaced Pierre Berbizier as France head coach and eventually turned to his former team-mate”

“Adopting Villepreux’s brand of ‘total rugby’, a revitalised France won back-to-back Five Nations titles in 1997 and 1998 and then reached the final of RWC 1999, having seen off New Zealand in one of the competition’s all-time classic semi-finals.” 

French rugby trying something it’s not

It has been a long time since French sides played in the Villepreux mould. For a whole generation, French teams tried to be something they weren’t. Perhaps they were scarred by their failure to follow up that 1999 Semi Final a week later.

Before long, French rugby changed for the worse. There were still flashes of the old flair, but they tried to be more consistent and disciplined. Under new coach Bernard Laporte, the new style was based on organisation and physicality like their Anglo-Saxon neighbours. They forgot what made them good.

Foreign players in the Top 14

French clubs followed the national team’s lead. Ignoring their own talented young players, they imported massive South African and Georgian forwards and huge Fijian wingers instead. English, Kiwis and Australians too. At club level this brought some success, especially for Toulon. Meanwhile, the soul of the game in France slowly died.

The incredible Nemani Nadolo is one of many players plying his trade in French rugby.
The incredible Nemani Nadolo is one of many players plying his trade in French rugby.

The renaissance of French rugby?

Until now. French Rugby has a wonderful new generation of players coming through. They might just be capable of recapturing the spirit of the late 1990s and early 2000s. France won the most recent U20 World Cup, beating South Africa in the pool stages, New Zealand in the Semi Final and England in the Final. The style retained plenty of heavy carrying, but they also played some wonderful rugby.

Some of the stars from this team have kicked on again this year. The U20 side had a hugely talented backline including Toulouse centre Romain Ntamack, Lyon centre Pierre Louis Barrassi and Toulon fly half Louis Carbonel. Brive’s on loan prop Demba Bamba, Montpellier flanker Cameron Woki, and Racing 92’s ridiculously good World Junior Player of the Year, 18-year-old Jordan Joseph, spearheaded a brutal pack.

In addition to their U20 talents, there is a slightly older generation with some fabulous players including:

  • Bordeaux half-backs Mathieu Jallibert (20) and Baptiste Serin (24)
  • Toulouse’s prop Cyril Baille (25), hooker Julien Marchand (23), scrum half Antoine Dupont (22) and fullback Thomas Ramos (23)
  • Stade centre Gael Fickou (24) and flanker Sekou Makalou (23)
  • La Rochelle prop Dany Priso (24) and hooker Pierre Bougarit (21)
  • Clermont lock Arthur Iturria (24), flanker Judicael Cancoriet (22) and centre/wing Damien Penaud (22)
  • Toulon fly half Anthony Belleau (22)
  • Montpellier flanker Yacouba Camara (24)
  • Racing 92 hooker Camille Chat (23), back row Fabien Sanconnie (23) and winger Teddy Thomas (25).

A more fluid Top 14

The Top 14 is now producing sides that play in a more fluid and thrilling way. Racing 92, Clermont and Toulouse are showing this on a weekly basis. French teams are increasingly likely to attack from anywhere. They are offloading in tight channels and throwing the ball around to stretch defences. French sides seem significantly fitter and less prone to fading away in the later stages of fast paced matches. Across the league, teams are becoming more reliant on the extraordinary wave of young French talent coming through. Above all, they look like they are having fun again!

Six Nations too soon?

While this 6 Nations may come too early for France, I really believe that good times are just around the corner for Les Bleus. I think every rugby fan would agree that it’s long overdue!

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Author: Daniel Pugsley

I am a 31 year old from Yorkshire, England. I have played social rugby for 25 years in England, Japan, Italy, Poland and the UAE. I teach English as a foreign language, which explains why I’ve lived in so many places. I recently moved back to England and have had to take a break from playing, but I hope to pull on the boots again soon.

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