France's ultimate dream has been dashed but the foundations behind the national side remain strong

France were knocked out by South Africa in one of the great World Cup quarter-finals
©Photo by Chris Hyde/Getty Images

Despite Steve Borthwick's best efforts to avoid labelling England as underdogs, this coming Saturday's World Cup semi-final against South Africa will be an enormous mountain to climb.

On Sunday night, the defending world champions broke the hearts of a nation as they dumped hosts France out of the tournament to conclude a brilliant weekend of quarter-final action.

Many may have thought this was Les Bleus' time. On home soil, with a squad littered with talent and the return of their poster boy Antonie Dupont, it had all the makings of something special but instead, the Springboks had other ideas.

And while exiting a home World Cup will take some time to come to terms with, French rugby is on the up and part of the reason for that is down to the league structure they have in place.

As an indication of the health of French rugby, the divisions below France’s top league, the Top 14, have had as many as 49 players selected across seven squads at this World Cup.

If you then compare that to the English Championship for example, they only had two representatives - Chilean captain Martín Sigren and Tongan and Coventry playmaker Patrick Pellegrini.

That perhaps is symbolic of the Championship’s decline in the last two World Cup Cycles as between 2015 and 2019, there were 29 Championship representatives compared to just the two this year.

Someone who has experienced the second tier of rugby in both England and France is Alex Codling. The Newcastle Falcons boss has previously been a coach at Ealing Trailfinders, but before moving to the North-East, he was with  Oyonnax in the French second division, Pro D2, where he helped the side to promotion last season.

And his two years over in France were eye-opening for Codling: “There are big crowds, anything from five to 15 to 20,000 in the Pro D2," he says. "There's a massive energy - you can watch it on the television."

“When I first went there was one game live on a Thursday, one game on Friday night live on TV. Now they've got one game on a Thursday and two live games on a Friday with full panels, analysis, and everything. Top 14 kicks in Saturday and Sunday."

Converse to the French game, the health of English rugby is widely known to have suffered in recent years. 

The liquidation of Jersey earlier this month - combined with Worcester Warriors, Wasps and London Irish folding last season - highlights this but Codling believes the quality of rugby, at least in the Championship, has also deteriorated.

"There's huge discrepancies and differences between the two and subsequently from a health perspective, the two are coping very differently," he said.

"It’s not to say things won't change but they are on different trajectories. Having coached in the Championship, last time was about three or four years ago, it was in a lot stronger health, a lot more competitive than it is now. 

"That ultimately is why, and I'm not pointing any finger of blame, it's just my observation as an outsider, is why there's less Championship representation in the World Cup. Everything has just taken a bit of a hit."

Venturing into the potential reasons why France and England have endured such varying trajectories recently, Codling remained modest, but his vast experience provides an intriguing insight: "There are glaring differences," he explained.

"They (France) dealt with COVID very differently. The COVID situation in France was covered. Payment was made directly from the government so there were no loans which is currently what the Premiership clubs are experiencing.

"We just need some good news in rugby in England at the moment. It's gone through a tough time with COVID, with 3 (Premiership) clubs going under.”

Delving into the underlying issues that predate COVID, it’s clear French rugby is enjoying the fruits of its labour over a long period of time.

"The one thing they have is, they've had a very long-term strategy that all the clubs in France bought into", said Codling.

"You can see by the success of the U20s (France are the current world champions) there's a clear pathway. I know this is happening now in England, but this probably happened 10 years ago in France. 

"That's their success because they've played so much together, they know each other, they have a lot of clear identity. Pathways and having clear direction from the top down, if you ever wanted proof of its success, there it is.

"It takes time and that's the biggest thing to put the building blocks in place and get things right. I know that's the ambition of the powers that be in English rugby and you can see the benefits with the amount of U20s to get through and that are now playing for the national team.

"It is not going to happen overnight.”

Nonetheless, it's these building blocks, no matter the timeline, that are encouraging to Codling. The first step, he thinks, is to remain optimistic despite a difficult period in England.

"It's important now we use positive language, we look at the English game in a positive way. There are loads of things to be positive about. Hopefully, this year's Premiership will be an opportunity to put that on show.

"From a Premiership perspective, there's a massive onus on us as coaches and players to put on a product this year and really bring some energy and life back into the English game.”

And Newcastle are doing their bit to make sure that the sport's talent production situation not only improves but expands.

"We've got boys up here that are currently in the university system at Durham, Northumberland. They will get game time and exposure through the universities. BUCS Super Rugby is very strong now compared to where it was.

"You've only got to look at the recruitment in recent years. I go back to my time at Harlequins, someone like Alex Dombrandt, Luke Northmore. These are the types of quality players that exist, they just need game time and exposure.

"We have Darlington Mowden Park a while from here in National One and Tynedale are in National Two. It's still a case of trying to make that work the best we can for the players because ultimately that's what we're here for, helping the players develop.

"The Championship and below will always and has always played a massive role and I don't see that changing.”

The sense of deflation in France after their World Cup exit may linger for a while yet but the last four years can only be seen as a success for French rugby. 

Their national team has captured the adoration of many in and outside of their country, and their league structure is exemplary. 

Whilst England's four years is much more ambiguous, having a man of Codling's vast experience and defiant optimism will only take the game from strength to strength.

France Fixtures