TOKYO, 18 Oct – France at the World Cup so far have been … well … typically French.
Brilliant for 40 minutes against Argentina, they still nearly lost the game as they imploded after half-time. They then brushed aside USA, before narrowly surviving another comeback against Tonga as the Pacific Islanders threatened to cause a huge shock.
The cancellation of their final pool match against England has given them two weeks to iron out the deficiencies ahead of their quarter-final against Wales, but they have to find the balance between their free-flowing backs and their misfiring forwards.
Behind the scrum, France were superb against Argentina in the first half. The centre combination of Gael Fickou and Virmi Vakatawa, who play in Oita on Sunday, were everywhere and combined for the first French try. At 1.57 in the clip below you can see the combination at work. They do not have any space when Vakatawa receives the ball but he stands up the Pumas' defence and creates space for his centre partner on the outside. The Fickou finish is excellent and gives France the early lead.
At 2.58 you can see how they combine again for the second try. Fickou carries into the Argentina 22 and on the next phase Vakatawa gets over the gainline and offloads to Maxime Medard. Antoine Dupont finishes off the move. Since that game, however, Vakatawa and Fickou have not appeared together. The question will be whether the centres can gel once again a month after they last played together.
What will concern France is how passive their pack has been and how they have dealt with the maul, which was key to Argentina getting back into the game in their pool match. First, at 4.20 in the clip above, Guido Petti Pagadizabal is the beneficiary when the French maul defence goes missing.
Then Julian Montoya scores at 5.01, with the French defence on this occasion putting up only slightly more resistance. The worst thing for a team with a weak maul defence is conceding penalties. That gives the opposition the opportunity to get into position to use their maul as a potent weapon. France are the third-most penalised team behind Uruguay and Samoa.
France love broken play and they may need to rely on opportunism to beat Wales. They are no strangers to taking those chances, however. Against Tonga, 43 seconds into the clip below, they turn a Tonga lineout on halfway into a French score. Camille Chat turns the ball over after an overthrow and France immediately spread the ball. That forces Tonga to chase across the pitch and Alivereti Raka can step back against the over-committed defenders. Vakatawa follows the ball after making his pass and is there to receive the offload for the try.
Raka and scrum-half Baptiste Serin also pair-up for an opportunist try at 1.04 in the video. France will be hoping their decision to leave Raka out of the starting line-up this weekend does not take away their ability to score from distance.
At some point, France will find their perfect XV. They hope that will be on Sunday. The French have looked at their best when allowed to run free with the ball; they have struggled when pulled into a power game. Their scrum success rate is just 78%, the lowest in the tournament. Only Uruguay, now departed, conceded more penalties at the scrum than France.
Les Bleus will be trying to keep the ball alive in Oita. Wales will be happy to play a slower game. Whoever wins that particular pace battle may well win the match.