Grand Slam Saturday: The result of 12 years of change in French rugby

France had to win the 2022 Six Nations, preferably with a Grand Slam, to confirm they really are back. They did. Here’s the story of the years of backroom and boardroom system change that has – finally – taken Les Bleus out of the rugby doldrums.

FABIEN Galthie was quick to pull all levels of the game in France into the Grand Slam celebrations after the 25-13 victory over England on Saturday night.

“This Grand Slam is a victory for the 1,900 clubs of French rugby,” he said, as Stade de France celebrated. This wasn’t mere lip-service. Nor was it the first time the management of France’s senior men’s squad had mentioned the club game during this Six Nations. 

In the squad selection announcement for the decisive final game against England, both Galthie and team manager Raphael Ibanez made pointed references to the domestic game.

Ibanez, opening the press conference, said: “We want to gather French rugby around the French XV,” he said. “I would like to thank the clubs, the presidents and their respective managers, because we have just lived through eight weeks of competition, and it has been a time of constant exchange with the players, the clubs. 

“If, today, we can present you with a competitive team for this match against England, it’s simply because French rugby understands this collective project.”

And Galthie, asked whether a Grand Slam shot was ‘always’ the goal for the Championship, answered: “Yes, we wanted to be in this position and we did everything to be there.

“It didn’t start at the first gathering in Carpiagne, it started long before. Competitions are won while they are not being played – in everything we did between November and December, with clubs, with club managers and players that allowed us to be in this position today.”

Work for this particular Six Nations may have started in November and December, but it was built on efforts to save French rugby dating back much further – almost back to the last time France lifted the title, in 2010.

Thierry Dusautoir noted in his post-match column in L’Equipe: “I don’t think we can draw parallels with the 2010 generation to which I belonged, because it’s not the same story or the same dynamic. Our team won, but with less serenity and control.”

Back then, France won the Grand Slam almost despite, rather than with, the clubs – who held the upper hand over the union because of the financial power of domestic game, driven by wealthy clubs importing stars from overseas.

So, change started with JIFF regulations. In a recent Rugby Union Daily podcast, Brive president Simon Gillham said clubs had “realised there were far too many people playing in French top divisions who were not qualified to play for France”.

The rules are complicated and, as Gillham pointed out, don’t mean that JIFF-qualified players automatically play for France. But the majority of those who go through age-grade rugby and academies to knock on the door of the professional game are French.

“To be very honest,” Gillham added, “I was against the system … but I think it’s been absolutely brilliant for French rugby. I think today, you’ve got third-, fourth-choice French scrum-halves who would probably be the number one in any other country in the Six Nations. 

“There’s a strength in depth today in French rugby – you could put out a second, almost third French team and they’d give everybody in the Six Nations a good game.”

As a coach, Galthie has been fortunate in more ways than one. He took charge at a genuine inflexion point, when a golden generation of young players from the world under-20 championship-winning sides of 2018 and 2019 were ready to take the next step in the senior men’s game. 

Four years earlier, Bernard Laporte had won a contentious FFR presidential election ballot with a populist manifesto that promised to “give power back to the amateur clubs”. 

He had two key aims: win hosting rights for the 2023 World Cup, and revitalise the men’s France side – a team he has repeatedly described as the ‘shop window’ for rugby in France. 

Galthie may always have been on Laporte’s mind as a long term coach – the pair go back a long way – “For 20 years, my destiny has been linked to Bernard’s – a very strong bond exists between us,” the head coach said ahead of the president’s hard-fought re-election in 2020

But he wasn’t necessarily first-choice. The president looked overseas after sacking Guy Noves and installing loyal Jacques Brunel as a caretaker – Warren Gatland and Joe Schmidt were linked to the post – while Galthie was tied into an ultimately aborted deal at Toulon. But a referendum of the newly empowered amateur clubs put paid to the overseas’ coach plan.

In the meantime, Galthie and Toulon had parted company after just one season. He was available; the job was coming open. The stars aligned.

So Galthie was named the next head coach of France in April 2019, to take over from Brunel after the World Cup in Japan. By early May he was part of the World Cup set-up, as an assistant to Brunel, alongside Laurent Labit and S&C coach Thibault Giroud, who had already agreed to join his coaching staff.

The rest of the future coaching staff – larger than any of France’s previous groups – was already almost confirmed. Shaun Edwards was on board. He would later say his decision was helped by the fact that ‘France really wanted me’. 

It would be easy to round this off here with a glib ‘the rest is history’ line. But that wouldn’t be true. Professional rugby – the source of all the players – needed convincing. Laporte had the World Cup. Galthie needed the players to make sure the home nation’s efforts weren’t embarrassing.

Back to Grand Slam Saturday. “The France team is the showcase of French rugby, it’s obvious,” Laporte said again, and welcomed, “the intelligence of the leaders of the LNR and the clubs”.

“This excellent dynamic of the Blues is due to a collective desire to move forward together,” added LNR president Rene Bouscatel.

Both Laporte and Bouscatel were on the pitch for the presentation of the Six Nations’ trophy.

The image, captured by numerous photographers and TV cameras won’t win any awards – it’s a picture of a group of mostly white, mostly middle-aged, men standing on grass, applauding. But it was a notable tableau, one that wouldn’t have been seen a few years ago in the internecine rugby war years in France.

Never-ending arguments over player release needed to be resolved. Galthie and Ibanez wanted to be able to select 42 players per international, 11 more than any preceding coach had been permitted. 

Negotiations were strong, rising to heated, if reports are accurate. The clubs weren’t willing to release so many players for so long. Laporte, it is claimed, threatened to use his authority as union president to bar any player not released from playing for 10 days.

In the end, for an annual payment of nearly €2million from the FFR, the clubs relented. It hasn’t all gone to plan – the three-match-per-player selection fudge for the hastily arranged Autumn International Cup in 2020 were due to a flare-up between union and league.

Now, may be the time for that ‘the rest is history line’. France won a first Six Nations in a dozen years; they are ranked second in the world and, right now, they’re on the rise. The battle between club and country is in a period of ceasefire – it may even be over for as long as the union-friendly Bouscatel is president of the LNR.

The rest has been done on the pitch, the result of a conjunction of undeniable playing talent and smart, co-ordinated coaching. He’s won 20 of 26 matches in charge – a success rate of nearly 77 percent. Of those matches France have lost since 2020, five have been within a score and the result only decided in the closing minutes.

The head coach has been offered a contract extension beyond the 2027 World Cup – and this time, according to Laporte, he will have sole say in selecting his coaching staff. 

“He is the right person, in the right place,” Laporte told Midi Olympique this week, confirming reports that he was to offer Galthie a long-term extension. “At the beginning of his mandate, I built with him because we were in a hurry: building a new staff, integrating Shaun Edwards, choosing names with him and Raphael Ibanez. 

“Putting the church back in the centre of the village was to make the French team a benchmark again and for that, the best in their field was needed. Servat for the scrum, Ghezal for the touch, Giroud for the performance cell, Labit in the three-quarters… I did it with him. 

“From now on, I leave the hand to him for the continuation. He doesn’t need me anymore.”

For now, a lot of the French rugby garden is looking very rosy indeed. It would be nice if that lasted a while.

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