France stride towards Six Nations glory

France stride towards Six Nations glory

Afternoon all. Dogs are weird, aren’t they? They basically make your life far more complicated and stressful than it would otherwise be, but their ridiculously endearing facial expressions and unconditional love makes it impossible to be angry with them for any longer than five seconds. My canine friend, Boris the Blade, is a border collie and so is particularly needy. Today, he decided to piss all over the fridge when I popped out to the shop. Not ideal. And yet, just a few hours later, he sits beside me as I write and I find myself wanting to give him treats just for existing. How fickle, the human heart.

I want to talk today about the French victory over Wales in the Six Nations earlier. It had been billed as a pivotal match for the tournament. For Wales, a chance to reveal their new identity and get some momentum going after an stuttering start under new coach Wayne Pivac. For France, an opportunity to back up their impressive victories against England and Italy by getting a result on the road in front of 74,000 partisan fans at the daunting Principality Stadium.

Thankfully, the importance of the occasion did not take away from the quality of the show. Both teams played strong, purposeful, skillful rugby with few mistakes. A fair amount of tactical, territorial kicking dovetailed with direct running and bruising collisions. It made for an attractive, balanced contest that culminated in a nail-biting conclusion. Can’t really ask for more.

The refereeing, on the other hand, was piss poor. The Welsh should have been awarded a penalty try after a deliberate knock-on by Paul Willemse, but equally Dan Biggar’s score shouldn’t have stood after the ball was held up over the line. Meanwhile, the pick of the tries – a free-flowing French score in the corner – was incorrectly disallowed for a forward pass that was, in reality, flat. I’m not blaming the on-field ref – he has such a difficult job – but the video assistant shouldn’t be getting those three calls wrong.

I must say, I was delighted for the French. Ever since Cristophe Dominici and company tore through the great All Blacks in the second half of that World Cup semifinal in ’99, I have had a soft spot for them. They can be frustrating to watch, and too often in recent memory they have been guilty of over-playing, perhaps trying too hard to match the “French flair” of their predecessors. But when they get it right – when the knock-ons and missed tackles give way to dazzling line breaks, audacious offloads and deft kicks – they are capable of playing at a level few other sides can reach. In the same way that millions around the world still tune to watch Brazil in the hope that they can reproduce the “Samba Football” of the 70s, I always look forward to watching the French play rugby in the (ever diminishing) hope that they can rediscover their flamboyant, brilliant best.

This French performance, however, felt a little bit different than the half-baked displays of recent memory. They were gritty, determined, and willing to do the dirty work to complement their hot-potato ball-handling approach. Shaun Edwards, the team’s new coach recently poached from Wales, appears to be working wonders with the defense. Led by the tireless Virimi Vakatawa, they charged out countless times to stop the Welsh runners in their tracks. It is a risky tactic but one that, if implemented correctly, can bring great rewards (as Romain Ntamack’s decisive interception try testifies).

Just a few months ago, France led Wales by six points with as many minutes remaining in the World Cup quarterfinal in Japan. On that occasion, their indiscipline cost them as they fell to defeat. Today, as the Welsh laid siege to the French line in the final minutes, the match seemed destined to end in the same manner. But this time the visitors held firm. Although sown with the same exuberant seeds as the great Gallic teams of the past, this youthful generation looks to have the resolve needed to get over the line in tight encounters. They are now firm favourites to claim their first title since 2010, with a Grand Slam to boot.

The quality of the match was also timely given that this year the Six Nations – usually one of the sporting highlights of the year- has slightly flattered to deceive so far. The Calcutta Cup was dramatic and tense, but memorable more for the lack of quality (admittedly in extenuating circumstances) than the abundance thereof. The Ireland-Wales match was also a bitty affair as the two teams come to terms with the demands and tactics of their respective new coaching teams. And the matches involving Italy have been sadly, predictably, one-sided.

In the context of the tournament as a whole, the French victory clearly piles the pressure on England and Ireland, who face each other at Twickenham tomorrow. The winner of that match will be the only realistic challenger to Les Blues. The loser can write off its championship hopes for another year. It should be a cracker.

Right, that’s that. I’m off to see Adam Sandler get up to some jewelry-based shenanigans in Uncut Gems, before watching possibly my favourite sportsperson in the world – Tyson Fury – hopefully knock the shit out of Deontay Wilder. More from me soon.