The French viewpoint: Has Fabien Galthie rediscovered Les Bleus flair?

The debate had been quietly, if rather sadly laid to rest in recent years, even in France
The French viewpoint: Has Fabien Galthie rediscovered Les Bleus flair?

France's captain Charles Ollivon races clear to score a try during clash with Wales at the Stade de France in Saint-Denis last week. Picture: AP Photo/Lewis Joly

That a particular rugby question would be raised again so quickly after France's 38-21 win over Wales on Saturday was as sure as œufs are œufs.

All it needed was a combination of one - undeniably decent - victory on international rugby's return, and a shot at a first Six Nations title since 2010. Suddenly the hot armchair topic in France is whether French Flair is beating anew in the hearts of Les Bleus or if it remains a long-lost fantasy of rugby's fever dreams.

The debate had been quietly, if rather sadly laid to rest in recent years, even in France, where they were desperately clinging to its memory.

But a few of those old enough to remember its last reportedly sighting more than a decade ago and who saw Fabien Galthie's side beat Wales in Paris are convinced: French Flair has been rediscovered.

One British rugby journalist tweeted, "The dream factory is back", having watched France run in five tries to inflict a fourth defeat in as many games on Wayne Pivac's side.

"The hard truth is that [Wales] were unable to cope with the offensive threat posed by Les Bleus," was the rather more sober post-match opinion of Wales Online. Further analysis suggested bluntly, "Wales are not within a spaceflight of France".

Even in France, where rugby expectations have been slowly rusting to nothing over years of disappointment, the thrill is palpable. It's a butterfly on a wheel, but - whisper it quietly - fans are daring to believe all over again.

Les Bleus early successes against England, Italy and Wales in 2020's coronavirus-disrupted Six Nations, leaving them behind Ireland and England in the table, were built on the back of ferocious Shaun Edwards' defence.

But it's their attack that has got misty-eyed rugby fans, who occasionally reminisce about those old jedis of the French game, Blanco, Sella and Ntamack Snr - or their padawans Dominici, Castaignède and young Freddie Michalak - hoping this dawn is not a false one.

With one game still to go in this year's tournament, France have already scored as many tries, 13, as they did in their last title-winning year, and more than they have in any Six Nations since. Ireland, for the record, have run in one more.

"To have players capable of instantly analysing the opposing defence and take advantage of it is very positive," wrote former France captain Thierry Dusautoir, in his L'Equipe column on Sunday.

It's true, France's touchdowns on Saturday featured instants worthy of a highlights reel. All came during open play - Ntamack's break between Carre and Webb led to the first; Vakatawa's off-balance offload to Thomas was the key the second; the interplay between Fickou, Vakatawa and then Dupont unlocked the third.

The scrum-half's turn-and-go for the fourth, and Cros' offload and Thomas' kick-and-chase for the fifth and final score were gasp-inducing pieces of skill.

It's all about tiny margins. Each time, however, the pace at which support players recognised something was on and poured through to give the ball carrier options, was crucial. 

It's easy to reel off the names of halfbacks Dupont and Ntamack, and the midfield pairing of Fickou and Vakatawa, who were involved in a lot of what France did well against Wales on Saturday. Coach Fabien Galthie certainly did. "When you have players of this quality in the centre of the field, it carries a team."

Backrows Gregory Alldritt, captain Charles Ollivon and Francois Cros, as well as loosehead Cyril Baille and hooker Julien Marchand - the latter three, like Ntamack, Dupont and Ramos in the backs, raised on Toulouse's no-fear boy racer brand of rugby - all merit a mention.

That is what has got rugby fans excited about this France team: its ability to turn defence into attack, to create something out of nothing. Frankly, it is still too early to talk seriously about the return of French flair - a phrase that these days should be treated as commentators' shorthand for highly skilled, well-drilled rugby.

But the early signs are promising. With a home World Cup in 2023 this highly skilled, well-drilled rugby team under this determined and, yes, well-drilled coaching set-up is doing pretty well, and on track to get better still.

What's more impressive, is that they were 10-0 down after eight minutes last Saturday night. Not so long ago, that would have induced panic.

No more, it would appear. But, and there is a but - there's a fly in Les Bleus' ointment. Against Wales, France coughed up 16 penalties, mostly at the breakdown.

They were, perhaps, fortunate that Dan Biggar, far from his best and struggling with a knock he'd picked up early on, missed three penalties. Against disciplined, ferocious Ireland, with their own shot at the Six Nations title very much in sight, it could be a flair killer.

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