Shaun Edwards’ decision to join France’s new-look coaching set-up after the World Cup was rumoured for so long that it was far from a surprise when it was finally confirmed.
But it still raised a few eyebrows, and prompted questions along the lines of whether he would be able to get talented-yet-notoriously stubborn French players to buy-in to his high-intensity defensive systems.
Rugby Twitter quickly filled with jokes about whether his Anglo-Saxon style would translate into French. And while the game’s English-speaking illuminati unanimously praised FFR President Bernard Laporte for his coaching coup, they wondered, to a pundit, whether French rugby would be able to cope with Shaun Edwards.
There’s a surprise in store. Welcome to the new, intense France rugby team.
Those social media jokes pre-supposed the French side picked for the Six Nations would run broadly along the lines of the French side picked for the World Cup.
It, unsurprisingly, ignored the possibility that France would go full Galthie and pick 19 uncapped players in a youth-dominated squad that - with only one player in his 30s - threw the past out with the bathwater.
This was to be a completely new start. New coaches, new systems. New Bleus. And France has gone with it. Not just the players, either.
The rugby press and the fans are along for the ride. There’s a sense that, this time, with these players and these coaches, there’s something to dare get excited about.
Edwards has, understandably, attracted much of the media attention. France has watched with envy as Ireland, England and Wales have all left them trailing in their collective coaching wakes. He is the proof that France are serious about making up lost ground.
Bringing him in was a stroke of opportunistic good fortune, and one French rugby could swallow - unlike, it turned out, a foreign head coach.
Laporte’s original plan - to bring in either Warren Gatland or Joe Schmidt - was scuppered before a deal could even be discussed in a referendum of 1,800 rugby club presidents, who resoundingly voted no to having a non-French coach in charge of the men’s senior international team.
But Edwards was more-than acceptable. Dave Ellis had the same role between 2000 and 2011, so there was a Grand Slam-winning precedent - and no one was disputing the new man’s own successes with Wales. He’s also learning the language, which always, unsurprisingly, goes down well.
By his own admission, partly - and bravely - in halting French, at the first coaches’ press conference in early December, Edwards had nothing to offer except blood, sweat and intensity.
Repeated four-minute game-situation training drills at full tilt - what England were calling ‘tactical periodisation’ two years ago - are the standard that Edwards, along with another hard man of the game, strength and conditioning coach, Thibault Giroud offer. That’s what France has bought into.
“You need a line that goes up faster, more two-on-one tackles, more intelligent resets. Attack the ball on the ground and in the air,” Edwards told Midi Olympique in a recent interview. “Constant aggression. Repeated effort, over and over again.”
There’s nothing new here. Except to the French. “We’re in a dynamic of performance and winning. That’s what we’ve been missing. We’re catching up with the other nations. We’re finally catching up,” Jefferson Poirot toldafter one session this week.
“It’s hard,” Romain Ntamack added. “But it’s very good. That’s how you have to train to compete with the best. We had been warned and nobody was surprised.”
Forwards coach William Servat has even removed some padding from the scrum machines. “If you want to be strong, you have to practice hitting something really hard. At first, it might have surprised the players, because they’re not used to it.”
But Edwards has also been barking out certain commands in English during these high-load training sessions, after speaking to referee Nigel Owens who will officiate the France-England game - his 98th Test match - on Sunday.
The idea is that French-speaking players are conditioned to react appropriately to the referee’s more regularly used instructions more quickly, and avoid giving away needless penalties. Intensity maybe his watchword, but behind it there’s the intelligence to turn it into something else.
What was lacking in France was not passion for the game, Edwards believes, but the structures that underpin them, that allow the passion to flourish.
“We have to put structures in place, and add intensity to them. At international level, all the teams have that. We need structures. I’m sure they existed before, but Les Bleus have lost them.
France plays with passion, but passion is not enough.