How a lapse in concentration nine months ago cost France the Six Nations title

Right now, as back then, France should not care. They have taken another step on a very particular route.
How a lapse in concentration nine months ago cost France the Six Nations title

France's Arthur Retiere celebrates with his team after the game. But for leaving England get a losing bonus point in February, France would have won the title. Picture: INPHO/James Crombie

Small margins. It turns out the final standings of the 2020 Six Nations were decided in Paris on February 2, less than a minute from the end of the final match of the Tournament's opening weekend.

France coach Fabien Galthie offered to lend Antoine Dupont his glasses after his star scrum half had kicked the ball out, thinking the game over, a minute too soon. His error gave opponents England the chance to take a losing bonus point that, nearly nine months later, would be crucial to deciding the tournament.

How they, self-deprecatingly, laughed at the time. But how different it could have been.

Some 273 days after that Stade de France opener, France finally finished second in the 2020 Six Nations, after beating Ireland 35-27 in the closing match of Super Saturday. But for that bonus point gifted to England in Paris the better part of a year earlier, they would have been celebrating a first Six Nations title in a decade.

Right now, as back then, France should not care. They have taken another step on a very particular route.

This was their best finish in the tournament in nine years. Before Saturday's game, Dupont had told Midi Olympique that being in the mix for the title heading into the final weekend was 'better than finishing fourth' - though finishing there remained a possibility heading into the game, after Scotland had beaten Wales in a dour Super Saturday opener.

In reaching the heady heights of second, they had delighted and terrified opposing fans from the moment Anthony Bouthier fired that monster spiral kick into touch early in that opening game.

That February outing had been the first game of the long-awaited Galthie era.

It was always going to be very different to what had gone before, built around a young squad headed by a coaching team that was well drilled and motivated, for they trained themselves long before the first Six Nations squad was selected, for one purpose. To challenge for the World Cup in France in 2023.

We're now six matches into that project and we know a number of things. This France side can win well, as it did in coming back from 10-0 down against Wales. It can win ugly, as it did against Italy on the other side of the coronavirus lockdown. And, as it demonstrated in Paris against Ireland on Saturday, it can win efficiently.

The target set earlier in the Super Saturday afternoon was always going to be monumental. England were always going to beat Italy. The only question was by how much. In the end beating Ireland by the 31 points needed to take the title was always going to be a Mission:Nearly Impossible - and France handed the championship to their anciens ennemis by not managing it.

This was not a 'classic' France performance of hoary cliche. For the most part, on Saturday, what Les Bleus did under a Hunters' Moon after heavy skies cleared in Paris was neither big, nor clever.

For long periods, notably in the first period as the rain poured, Ireland had the beating of France. The penalty count racked up as Shaun Edwards' defensive system was stretched to this way and then that. Ireland had a shout of a penalty try when Bouthier deliberately knocked the ball out a metre from his own line.

Referee Wayne Barnes decided Hugo Keenan had overrun the ball and would not have scored. It was, at best, a debatable call.

Importantly, it seemed, Ireland had France's key threat-runners under control.

And then they didn't. And when they didn't France were clinical. The difference, and the danger, came in those moments.

Gael Fickou, Antoine Dupont, Virimi Vakatawa and Romain Ntamack, in particular, caused panic in the Irish defence. First Fickou - after Rattez kept the ball alive on the opposite flank - set Dupont free. Then Dupont latched onto Fickou's kick ahead before passing to Ntamack early in the second half, and Vakatawa ran a perfect support line for Ntamack to release him after gathering his own kick ahead for the bonus-point score.

France's Antoine Dupont runs in to score his sides first try during the 6 Nations match at the Stade de France, Paris.
France's Antoine Dupont runs in to score his sides first try during the 6 Nations match at the Stade de France, Paris.

The forwards got in on the act, too, with Francois Cros winning a penalty try after being tackled without the ball when he looked certain to win the hack-and-chase to the line. That was a cruel score, coming 20 minutes after Ireland's own appeals for a penalty score had been turned down.

It was telling that, well into the second period, France had spent just 41 seconds in Ireland's 22, while Ireland had spent more than four minutes in the same area of their opponents' territory. And, yet, because they took their chances it was France who were in the lead.

The 35-27 final score was a clear shape of things to come.

That this France won at home should come as no great surprise. What should worry almost every other international side is not that France can win like this. It's that this France side are just five matches into a long-stated mission.

It's not that long ago that Les Bleus would butcher chances more clear cut that the ones they took against Ireland. It's not that long ago that they would never have the vision or the bravery to dare to take such opportunities.

Worryingly, for everyone else, Le Fear that gripped France rugby for the past decade has gone.

Make no mistake, this France side is far from perfect. It doesn't need to be. Galthie may prefer to talk in a countdown about the number of internationals remaining to the 2023 World Cup, but there's still time to settle on a back three, to build depth in the second row, to worry about current front-row frailties. Nor does Edwards have to solve defensive discipline issues tomorrow.

They are a young side - only Bernard Le Roux has hit 30. They're clever and they're fearless.

They have coaches who know what they're doing, and what they're doing it for. With three years more experience under their belts, this France side will be serious contenders.

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