Golden generation or the beginnings of a rugby dynasty? Inside France’s rugby rejuvenation
France's internationals are in Nice this week for a pre-Six Nations training camp ahead of their opening match against Italy in Rome on Saturday 6 February.
There were no big surprises in coach Fabien Galthié's selections this year – he brought in three uncapped players, but the rest were pretty much as expected. Post-selection call-ups after first-choice players were sidelined with injuries while on Top 14 duty were also as expected.
It was just over a year ago that then-new coach Galthié took a wrecking ball to the established France rugby order when he named 19 uncapped players in his first senior men's Six Nations training squad. No other coach cleaned house so comprehensively.
The French rugby press were already speculating who was likely to come in for post-Rugby World Cup retirees Guilhem Guirado, Wesley Fofana, Louis Picamoles and Sébastien Vahaamahina when Galthié named his squad. He ignored the experience of Yoann Huget, Maxime Médard, Rabah Slimani, Wenceslas Lauret, Maxime Machenaud, Sofiane Guitoune, and Camille Lopez from international rugby, weeks after they had played in Japan in favour of youthful potential.
Bernard Le Roux was the only player in Galthié's initial squad to have hit the age of 30, while Gaël Fickou was – and remains – the current national side's sole 50-cap winner.
It was a gamble. But it paid off, as Galthié's France defied those who dismissed their inexperience to record seven wins in nine outings in the COVID-hit 2020 international year – and convinced more than one commentator that Les Bleus appear en route to being serious Rugby World Cup 2023 contenders.
Galthié has garnered plenty of plaudits for transforming France's rugby fortunes so quickly, but he'll be among the first to admit he has benefited from the work of others. This is no rugby revolution. It's the result of a multi-step effort to change French fortunes.
A legacy of championship-winning age-grade rugby
Sébastien Piqueronies, who now has the title of Manager France Jeunes Rugby, was in charge of France’s back-to-back U20 Championship-winning sides in 2018 and 2019, and has built a clear pathway from age-grade to senior rugby that Galthié and his staff are benefiting from as they build to France 2023. Through Piqueronies, Galthié has inherited a group of young players used to winning and ready, willing, and able, to buy-in to his training regime, philosophy and full-throttle game plan.
That first Galthié squad ahead of the Six Nations 2020 included seven players from France's World Rugby U20 Championship-winning sides of the past two years. Now, no fewer than nine graduates of Piqueronies' World Rugby U20 Championship-winning classes of 2018 and 2019 – Demba Bamba, Pierre-Louis Barassi, Louis Carbonel, Kilian Geraci, Jean-Baptiste Gros, Romain Ntamack, Arthur Vincent, Cameron Woki and Hassane Kolingar – have been capped at senior level.
The latest squad for the Six Nations training camp in Nice ahead of the trip to Rome on 6 February includes the uncapped Donovan Taofifénua, Georges-Henri Colombe, and Julien Delbouis. They, too, Piqueronies' U20 alumni.
Another member of this same golden generation, Matthieu Jalibert, was absent for the World Rugby U20 Championship in 2018, after suffering a season-ending knee ligament injury 30 minutes into his senior international debut six months earlier.
Waiting in the wings, meanwhile, are Jordan Joseph, Clément Laporte, Sacha Zegueur, Lucas Tauzin and Ugo Boniface. We can expect to see their names on future France senior men's matchday team sheets.
Seeds sown by the JIFF regulations
None of these players sprang, fully formed, from nowhere. They were grown and nurtured and developed in a system designed and intended to improve homegrown rugby talent – starting with increasingly strict JIFF regulations in French rugby that ensure clubs in the Top 14 and Pro D2 select players who have come through the age-grade set-up in France.
These rules are doing exactly what they were intended to do when they were brought in a decade ago: prompting clubs to invest in young, homegrown talent rather than importing ready-made players from elsewhere.
Currently, professional clubs in France can have no more than 14 non-JIFF players in their senior squads, and matchday 23s must average 16 JIFF-qualified players per game throughout the season. From next season, these quotas are set to tighten further.
These rules have helped bring enviable fly-half riches in Ntamack, Carbonel, and Jalibert, all vying for that 10 shirt, when – not so very long ago – fly-halves were routinely buy-ins for domestic French rugby.
JIFF rules have allowed Antoine Dupont to develop into a scrum-half mentioned in the same terms as Aaron Smith – while younger nines like Baptiste Germain and Théo Idjellidaine are coming through academy ranks.
They have been instrumental in bringing through Bamba, Joseph, Woki, Sekou Macalou, Geraci – and Vincent, Ramos and Barassi. Galthié has enviable options almost everywhere on the pitch.
The best still to come?
While Galthié is redrawing the present story of France in his image, Piqueronies is already looking to the next generation. In the autumn, 46 teenagers from clubs across France were singled out for additional monitoring and support under a scheme set up by the French Rugby Federation in conjunction with the clubs.
They are the potential cream of a crop of some 120 possible stars of the future, aged 17 to 19, that the French Rugby Federation has called to training camps. Next year, another group will start the same journey.
Piqueronies has freely admitted that the two France U20s classes of 2018 and 2019 were 'exceptional'. He cannot guarantee as many players will regularly make the step-up from age-grade international rugby to senior international rugby.
But he is laying foundations on which Galthié is building his squad now, and for France sides for the next decade.
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