Six Nations: Under the radar France should not be written off

In football you famously never write off the Germans and there has been a similar approach down the years to a French rugby team that is equally a magnet for cliché.
Bordeaux stand-off Matthieu Jalibert, 19, is an exciting prospect. Photograph: Nicolas Tucat/GettyBordeaux stand-off Matthieu Jalibert, 19, is an exciting prospect. Photograph: Nicolas Tucat/Getty
Bordeaux stand-off Matthieu Jalibert, 19, is an exciting prospect. Photograph: Nicolas Tucat/Getty

Swap “teutonic efficiency” for “Gallic flair” and you are immediately transported into the well-worn starting point for assessing the chances of the eternal enigmas that are Les Bleus. Which French team will turn up? A different animal with the Paris sun on their backs...

Many have been willing to write off the French this year, though, and there is plenty of empirical evidence to support that. More lumbering than flamboyant these days, not since the 1980s when Scotland always beat them at Murrayfield and always lost at the Parc des Princes has a home fixture against France been circled as “highly winnable”.

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“French rugby in disarray” is another of those comforting clichés forever close at hand and, currently, impossible to avoid. Wealthy clubs grow ever more powerful, coach Guy Noves was sacked last month, centre Mathieu Bastareaud is banned for making a homophobic slur, police last week raided the FFR to investigate claims of favouritism by president Bernard Laporte towards Montpellier.

The plot twists are so labyrinthine that you wouldn’t be surprised to see Lieutenant Gilou Escoffier from the BBC4 Saturday night Parisian cop grit-fest Spiral preparing to pack down in the front row of the scrum with a half-smoked Gitanes in the corner of his mouth.

Amidst the mayhem, however, France could be about unleash a new superstar in the form of 19-year-old Bordeaux stand-off Matthieu Jalibert.

The fact his club coach, former Italy boss Jacques Brunel, has ascended to replace Noves as national boss adds to the expectation that the teenage tyro will start at ten against Ireland, with Camille Lopez injured.

Jalibert would be following in the footsteps of another hotly-tipped young stand-off, Anthony Belleau of Toulon, pictured,who is just two years older. His failure to ignite played a part in Noves losing his job but expert observers can barely contain their exhilaration at the prospect of seeing Jilabert on the international stage. Former England lock turned BT Sport pundit Ben Kay has described him as “the most exciting talent I have ever seen”.

His breathtaking breaks and irrepressible elan could be the spark which propels from no-hopers to champions. How very French that would be.

England coach Eddie Jones even managed to drop the fixed Cheshire Cat grin and never-ending wind-up merchant act for a few minutes last week to issue a serious warning about the dangers this France side could present. “History can repeat itself,” he said. “Previously that [state of disarray] has been the catalyst for French sides to regenerate. When they’ve had all this trouble they find this collective will – it’s us against the world. Jacques Brunel is an experienced coach and will know how to manipulate, control and contrive a good environment for the players to go forward.

“If you put down each of the teams on paper and you looked at the individuals in the French team you would say they’ve got a strong team. Jacques has been coaching professionally for over 20 years, had a stint as assistant under Laporte and he’ll bring to them a wealth of experience, some calmness and assurance about the style of play.”

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Joe Schmidt is the man who first has to pit his wits against the “puzzle” that is the current France when Ireland travel to Paris next weekend.

The Kiwi, who worked under former Scotland boss Vern Cotter at Clermont Auvergne, said: “I do think that the clubs in France operate very independently. Obviously, having coached at a club in France for three years, we were very independent of the national set-up.

“Players would head off to the national set-up including some of our espoirs, the younger players, would go off to under-19 camps, so there is still that connection there but there are more pieces of the puzzle to put together. There are 30 professional teams in France so that whole matrix is always going to be more difficult to manage, particularly when they are more independent.”

Scrum-half Morgan Parra and full-back Brice Dulin both miss the opening game with injury. Astonishingly France are above only Italy in the betting, at odds as high as 20-1. A virtuoso match-winning debut from Jalibert would cut that significantly and have the French cockerel heading to Murrayfield for game two with a strut in its stride once again.