Exploring France's incredible depth

Antoine Dupont (left) was voted Six Nations Player of the Tournament

When France nearly beat England in the Autumn Nations Cup final at the start of December, the depth in French rugby became so apparent. 

Eddie Jones’ starting XV on that day had a record caps total of 813, whilst Fabien Galthié’s side had just 68 so for the game to have essentially gone down to golden points, it was a testament to the talent that France has available to them.

This was reinforced last weekend over the opening round of the Heineken Champions Cup, where seven of the eight French sides beat their oppositions from England, Scotland and Ireland. 

It was the comments on BT Sport’s commentary during Lyon’s domination of Gloucester that struck a chord when highlighting scrum-half Baptiste Couilloud. It was referenced that the 23-year-old could be one of the best scrum-halves to hardly get a look in at Test level.

When watching him carve up the Cherry and Whites on Sunday afternoon, that statement on face value seemed preposterous. However, when you dig a little deeper, you suddenly realise how accurate the comment is. 

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Sticking with Couilloud’s position at nine, the Lyon man has a handful of caps to his name and did start against England at Twickenham in the Autumn Nations Cup in the absence of Baptiste Serin and star man Antonie Dupont.

The latter is by far and away France’s starting scrum-half and logic would suggest the experienced Serin could offer a more level-headed option in the 21 shirt. That leaves Couilloud as the third option, with Sebastien Bezy’s recent performances for Clermont putting him in fourth-place for a starting position. 

Move to the 10 shirt and the plot thickens even further. Romain Ntamack, 21, has been the incumbent fly-half for 18 months now, but his injury during the autumn allowed Galthié to put Matthieu Jalibert, 22, back in the starting line-up for the national team.

Having made his first start for France as a 19-year-old in 2018, he has matured immeasurably and looked extremely adept at operating at the very highest level. So, even more headaches. 

That headache intensifies with the recent debut of Toulon’s Louis Carbonel. Aged 21, the half-back has already amassed more than 50 appearances for his club side and his raw talent was enough to displace Ntamack in the France U20 side that won the World Rugby U20 Championship on home soil in 2018.

Add in Toulon’s Anthony Belleau, who has over 10 caps at the age of 24, you instantly have competition for the starting job as France’s playmaker. The only criticism of this situation is that, unlike in the nine shirt, there is no player with real experience to bail Galthié and his coaching staff out of trouble if the worst comes to the worst.

When you look at the centres, it does feel as though Gael Fickou and Virimi Vakatawa are pretty nailed on decisions with none of France’s replacements having made a significant impact on proceedings, although Pierre-Louis Barassi played particularly well for Lyon last weekend and has shown his qualities for France when given limited opportunities.

On the wing, Toulon’s Gabin Villiere has certainly made his name known with some flashy performances against Italy and England, before backing up those efforts with a try against Sale Sharks last weekend. 

Then you see Alivereti Raka and Damian Penaud being truly dominant for Clermont against Bristol on Saturday lunchtime and that depth becomes ever clearer. It’s frightening, especially when you consider Teddy Thomas has his hand up for selection, along with Montpellier’s Vincent Rattez. 

At full-back, the plot thickens further. Anthony Bouthier performed so finely in the Six Nations at the start of 2020, but then again, Toulouse’s Thomas Ramos is always solid whenever he gets an opportunity. Throw Brice Dulin's readmission to the national side into the mix and it possibly makes the 15 jersey the most up-for-grabs position in the French team.

Of course, this isn’t just a problem confined to the backs. In the front-row, Cyril Baille, Jean-Baptiste Gros and Jefferson Poirot have each been given chances at loosehead. Camille Chat, Julien Marchand and Pierre Bourgarit all have been infallible at hooker, whilst Demba Bamba, Mohamed Haouas and Uini Antonio are clearly in favour at the moment and offer a lot at tighthead.

At lock, Paul Willemse and Bernard Le Roux were the incumbent partnership at the start of the calendar year and the pairing even finished off the Six Nations campaign together before Killian Geraci and Baptiste Pesenti concluded the year in the engine room.

Gabin Villière has recently made his case for more selections

Finally comes the back-row. Of course, France’s captain is Charles Ollivon and the openside flanker is probably one of the first names on the team sheet. Number eight Grégory Alldritt is possibly the second or third and his performances during the Six Nations saw the La Rochelle man earn a nomination for the Player of the Tournament award.

Where there is possibly a bit of competition is at blindside. Toulouse’s François Cros was the man given the six shirt for the entirety of the Six Nations, however, at the end of the Autumn Nations Cup and in the first round of the Champions Cup, we have seen Cameron Woki start to come of age. He coped with England at Twickenham very well, then just five days later, he gathered a player of the match award against Northampton Saints for club side Bordeaux. 

You then put in the obvious talents of Selevasio Tolofua and Sekou Macalou and France have several options to choose from to nullify opponents. 

The reality of international selection is that with only 23 involved in a matchday squad, every time a player capable of playing on the world stage is released back to their club, their hunger to be pulling on a blue jersey will drive them to get better and better.

Even the recent selection policy of three games before being sent back to their clubs has posed issues. Moving to a less experienced squad should have seen the side falter, but in reality, it was anything but. Playing against varied competition in the Champions Cup is a great insight into how players can adapt to different styles of play and the likelihood is that we shall see even more players work their way into contention.

Unfortunately this weekend, we will not get to see Toulouse and Lyon in action due to Covid-19 positive tests within the Exeter Chiefs camp, but the disruption does perhaps offer players representing the likes of Montpellier, Toulon, La Rochelle, Clermont, Bordeaux and Racing 92 to showcase their immense qualities once again.


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