With the 2018 Six Nations Championship in the books, I am publishing report cards based on my data and observations.
France may have finished fourth in the 2018 Six Nations but there was really very little difference between the teams ranked second to fifth in the table this year. Analysing the 22 entries in France’s five matches makes a good argument that France were actually the second best team in the competition. Either way, France were certainly the surprise of this year’s Six Nations Championship with a game which was built on defence.
France’s performances in this year’s competition relied on a solid defence which not only allowed just 26 entries into the French 22 but kept the points scoring down to two per visit for teams which got that far. On a purely statistical basis that makes France’s defence the best in the competition but, as I explained on Ireland’s report card, there is a strong argument that Ireland’s was actually the best due to the control the Irish team had.
The strength of the French defence meant that Les Bleus were in contention during every match they played, leading at some point during all five and never falling more than nine points behind. If the France attack had functioned at even average levels of effectiveness, it is possible that at least four wins would have been recorded rather than two.
The ones that got away
France’s opening match against Ireland will be rightly remembered for Johnny Sexton’s 45 metre drop goal and the 41-phase move, starting on Ireland’s own line, which led up to it. What won’t be remembered was the moment directly before that move began. France had been awarded a penalty on the left hand side around 29 metres from the try line. It was a very kickable penalty and would have made the score 16-12 to France with less than three minutes to go. Maxime Machenaud was seemingly unable to take it as he was on the pitch as an injury replacement so Anthony Belleau stepped up and his shot went just to the left of the post. The rest is history.
A week later France went to Scotland, had the best of the first hour or so, led by 10 points on two occasions and 26-20 with a quarter of the match remaining. In that last quarter, France delivered a series of kickable penalties to the welcoming boot of Greig Laidlaw who scored all four and turned a six point deficit into a six point victory. France were the only team in the 2018 Six Nations Championship to lose a match in which they had led by 10 points until Italy also lost against Scotland on the final day after being 12 points up.
Finally, Wales against France at the end of the competition’s climactic day. After Wales had made the score 14-10 in the 31st minute of the match, France were awarded 11 of the 14 penalties which were given in the final 49 minutes at the Millennium Stadium. A team will usually turn a good proportion of penalties into points but France’s efforts led to just a single penalty being scored, two others being missed and a catalogue of errors. Francois Trinh-Duc’s 52nd minute kick over the Wales dead ball line when going for touch from a penalty around halfway was the worst but the French fly half also failed to get distance on a number of other kicks to touch.
Attack which doesn’t fire
France went into the opposition 22 on fewer occasions than England, Ireland and Wales during the Championship but the team’s real problem was similar to England’s – the failure to turn those visits into points. Only England (2.02 points per 22 entry) had a blunter attack than France whose visits to the opposition 22 delivered an average of 2.52 points each time. To really challenge for the Six Nations title again, France need to get over their opponents’ 22 metre line more but more importantly take the chances once they arise, something they actually did against both Ireland and Scotland but failed miserably to do so in their other three matches.
Les Bleus had had a better Six Nations Championship than usual in 2017 finishing third, their only appearance in the top three since finishing as runners-up behind England in 2011. However, the rest of the year went badly with three straight defeats in South Africa, home defeats against the All Blacks and South Africa (again) and finally a 23-23 draw with Japan in Paris in France’s final Autumn International. The year ended with head coach Guy Novès getting the boot during the Christmas period and former France assistant coach Jacques Brunel being installed as his successor only around five weeks before the 2018 Six Nations was due to begin.
France began the 2018 competition with two defeats in tight matches against Ireland and Scotland in which performances looked promising. However, a night out after the Scotland defeat led to Teddy Thomas, Remi Lamerat, Louis Picamoles, Anthony Belleau, Jonathan Danty, Arthur Iturria, Felix Lambey, Alexandre Lapandry and Sekou Macalou all being thrown out of the squad. Iturria, Lamerat and Thomas had all started the first two Six Nations matches with Thomas scoring all three of France’s tries against Ireland and Scotland. Picamoles and Belleau had both come on from the bench.
Brunel was therefore forced to make even more changes in addition to those he had made from Novès’ squads and his replacements of probable first choices at scrum half (Morgan Parra) and full back (Brice Dulin) before the competition started. The France XV which started against England contained only two players – captain Guirado and Vahaamahina – who remained from the group which started the 2017 match between the two teams. England in contrast started their 22-16 defeat in Paris with nine of the players who kicked off against France in February 2017.
Overall number two
Despite France’s lack of efficiency with their opportunities in their final three matches, they scored 26 points more than their opponents did once getting into the 22. This is only a third of Ireland’s points difference from these opportunities but it is the best of the remaining five teams. The French finished third because they gave away far too many kickable penalties during opposition moves which didn’t enter their 22 and were punished for this by Scotland in particular but also by Ireland.
France now have three Test matches in New Zealand in June followed by Autumn Internationals against South Africa and Argentina (amongst others) in November before we go again in the 2019 Six Nations Championship. The fantastic try scored by Gaël Fickou against Wales seems to have been lost amongst the Ireland Grand Slam celebrations on Saturday but it was a sign of what a France attack can do. Combine that with the solid defence they have shown during this Championship, cut the penalty count that hands opponents opportunities and maybe, just maybe, France will be a genuine challenger next year for the first time since their 2010 Grand Slam.