As France look to build on their best Six Nations campaign for 10 years, their prop Mohamed Haouas can reflect on a punch that cost them up to £2.5m. France were winning by a point at Murrayfield in March towards the end of the first half when the front-rower was sent off for striking the flanker Jamie Ritchie in the face.
It was France’s only defeat and they finished second to England on points difference. They would have won the title had they secured a bonus point in defeat against Scotland and achieved the grand slam, and prize money of £6m, had they held on to their lead with 15 men.
As France have risen, so last year’s champions, Wales, have slumped. They finished fifth with an initial victory over Italy followed by four defeats, a run that this week prompted the dismissal of Byron Hayward as defence coach, a year after he took over from Shaun Edwards, who is now part of France’s management team.
The Wales head coach, Wayne Pivac, said it was his decision to unseat Hayward, someone he had worked with at the Scarlets and who he described as a good friend. By insisting on that, Pivac was sparing his former colleague further humiliation, but for weeks there have been reports of players expressing their discontent to the head coach who, after the post-lockdown defeats to France and Scotland, felt he had no choice.
It puts Pivac in a weaker position and he needs an Autumn Nations Cup campaign that tallies up to more than a victory over Georgia. Whatever the issues over Hayward, and he would have suffered in comparison to Edwards, who was Wales’ defence coach for 12 years, he was not the reason a number of the senior players, ones who scaled the heights under the previous regime, were so anonymous against Scotland in Llanelli. Yet 14 have survived to face Ireland on Friday despite Pivac needing to forge a team in his own image rather than that of his predecessor.
Wales would have held on to Edwards had they offered him a new four-year contract rather than one which, as with every other one of the management team, contained a break clause at the halfway stage. France stepped in and offered him a deal until the end of the 2023 World Cup, a decision that reaped instant reward.
Wales quickly came to epitomise Edwards, intense and unyielding, always giving everything. France seemed a less likely fit after 10 fitful years when they were prone to lapses in concentration and often played like a collection of individuals rather than a team, consistently inconsistent.
Then they appointed Fabien Galthié as head coach and in came Edwards, whose previous partner had been Warren Gatland at Wasps as well as Wales, where they won every tournament they competed for except one, the World Cup, and there they took Wales, who were used to turning up to an airport for an early flight home, to two semi-finals which were both lost by a single score.
“I always said I would never get into coaching because I never had a passion for it,” said the France second row Bernard le Roux on Le French Rugby podcast. “Until I saw Shaun Edwards. I got home one day and told the missus I wanted to do what this guy is doing. He is brilliant, extraordinary, the way he works with players.
“He always looks like he is angry when he is working. Technically, he has changed the mindset about contesting, tackling and small techniques. He does small drills three times and never more than five minutes. It is at 100% and so effective. He is great on the beers after a game, a good team guy and he has made a massive effort to speak French. He is really good for the team.”
France pulled themselves together after winning the right to host the 2023 World Cup, a not inconsiderable achievement considering they staged the event in 2007. This year’s Six Nations finish was ahead of plan and they are on course to rival England for European supremacy.
It demands a response from the Celts but Wales look in the process of tearing down rather than building and Ireland, while in a stronger position, need to find an identity under Andy Farrell. As Le Roux noted on the podcast: “Once you get the Irish out of their gameplan, they can get a bit lost.” Ditto England.
France would be the favourites to win their Autumn Nations Cup group, which contains Scotland, Italy and Fiji, although they have to travel again to Murrayfield and take on a team who are maximising their resources. But Galthié is having to look to the future because the Top 14 clubs received an assurance that no player would appear in more than three of the six autumn matches.
So the likes of Antoine Dupont, the player of the Six Nations, will appear in only one match having already made two appearances: 13 players started both the October victories over Wales and Ireland, which means Galthié will be mining reserves. The new broadcaster, Amazon, may come to feel short-changed.
A problem France had in the 2010s was getting players to adapt to the step up from club rugby, both in terms of intensity and fitness. “We have a good balance in the team now,” said Le Roux, who abandoned a plan to retire from Test rugby after the World Cup because he sensed the difference the new regime would make. “I have never trained like this with France before. It is high intensity but afterwards we get on the beers and have some fun. For the first time I am thinking how we can get ahead. We are not chasing teams any more but doing things that suit us.”
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