CHRIS FOY – WORLD OF RUGBY: After a car crash start to the Six Nations, is end of France’s golden age nigh?

France are in major trouble. Matthieu Jalibert is likely to miss the rest of the Six Nations, Jonathan Danty is set to be banned, Romain Ntamack is still absent and Antoine Dupont is otherwise engaged in Tinseltown.

While the exiled captain is preparing for the Los Angeles edition of the Sevens circuit, ahead of this summer’s Olympics, the national team he left behind are unravelling at a shocking rate. Their 13-13 draw against Italy in Lille on Sunday – following the opening-night surrender to Ireland in Marseille and a let-off against Scotland at Murrayfield – was further evidence that all is not well. At all.

Again and again, France’s players are being quizzed on whether they are still stalked by the trauma of a one-point loss to South Africa in the quarter-finals of their home World Cup. They repeatedly insist that they have reviewed it, parked it and moved on, but they appear weighed down by baggage.

That is just one of many issues afflicting Les Bleus. Jalibert’s knee injury will deprive them of another key figure and they are already without others such as Dupont, Ntamack, lock Thibaut Flament and wing Louis Bielle-Biarrey. There has also been staff upheaval, with newcomers being integrated such as attack coach Patrick Arlettaz, forwards coach Laurent Sempere and head of strength and conditioning, Nicolas Jeanjean.

In the aftermath of France’s defeat at the hands of a rampant Irish side on February 2, Jeanjean acknowledged his surprise at the fitness gulf between the teams. This added to concerns held by many about the condition of French players who were soon back in Top 14 league mode after their World Cup exit.

There are many issues affecting France, which is clear from their rocky start to the Six Nations

The host nation was left desolate after their exit from the World Cup, and have not recovered

The host nation was left desolate after their exit from the World Cup, and have not recovered

Further below the surface, there is more to this decline than instantly meets the eye. There has been a notable shift in the funding and support for the France team. From 2019-2023, head coach Fabien Galthie was given ample time to work with a large squad, but many Top 14 clubs feel that they didn’t enjoy a return on that backing.

After a period of relative unity, there are signs of renewed club-country tension and Galthie has been forced to accept a reduction in squad size from 42 to 34. After clubs across the Channel committed fully to the 2023 project which ended at the last-eight stage, some coaches in the league are bemoaning the absence of players who don’t appear in France’s match-day squads.

Financially, the French federation (FFR), under the command of Bernard Laporte, spent heavily on the 2023 mission, but the budget has been tightened. Since Laporte left his post as president, while being investigated for corruption, there have been accusations that his regime had spent beyond the FFR’s means.

Following the World Cup exit, which left the host nation desolate, new FFR president Florian Grill said: ‘I’m not bothered by the fact that we’re registering a €16m deficit in 2022-23 and that the 2023-24 deficit will be around €20m.’ Yet, the FFR don’t own a stadium, allowing them to generate substantial revenue as their English counterparts at the RFU are able to do.

In addition, there is uncertainty about the use of the Stade de France in Paris after this year due to a potential change of operating arrangements. It is state-owned, but run by two companies, Vinci and Bouygues, and that deal expires in June next year. Once it is known what happens next, the FFR will have to renegotiate a deal to use the stadium.

Meanwhile, France’s let-down result against Italy has provoked a fierce backlash. The main headline in sports newspaper L’Equipe was ‘Perdus’ (lost), with a picture of weary, dejected French players after the final whistle in Lille. The player ratings were savage; Danty received 2/10, Jalibert 3/10 after his premature departure and five home players only received a 4/10 mark.

At the same time, Dupont is having a Pied Piper impact in Sevens, with heightened interest in the abbreviated format and huge coverage of his first tournament last weekend, in Vancouver. His involvement could pay off at the Olympics, but it has jarred while the Test team are struggling.

Interest levels remain good. The France-Italy match attracted nearly six million TV viewers and a 42 per cent audience share expansion, along with a capacity crowd in a northern city which is not known as a traditional hot-bed of the sport. But it all became very quiet as the home team lost their way.

Gallic fans have been accustomed to success in recent years, at international and club level. It has been a French golden age and the sport is booming there. But this is becoming a time of frustration and rising tension. The last two rounds of this Six Nations loom as a key tipping point for Galthie’s team and the game in their country.

Antoine Dupont is bringing heightened interest to the abbreviated format of Sevens

Antoine Dupont is bringing heightened interest to the abbreviated format of Sevens

Ireland could smash the highest average winning margin by a Slam-winning team

Ireland could smash the highest average winning margin by a Slam-winning team

This won’t be high on their to-do list, but Ireland have an outside chance of completing the most dominant Grand Slam of the Six Nations era, this season. 

So far, Andy Farrell’s imperious side have won their three matches by an average margin of 27 points – and next they go to Twickenham to face an England team seemingly in a fresh state of turmoil. 

The highest average winning margin by a Slam-winning team, since the Five became Six, was England’s 25.4 in their glory year; 2003. 

Full list of average winning margins by a Six Nations Slam-winning team 

(Average margin in brackets) 

2023 – Ireland (14); 

2022 – France (13.6);

2019 – Wales (9.8); 

2018 – Ireland (15.6); 

2016 – England (12.4); 

2012 – Wales (10.2); 

2010 – France (13.2); 

2009 – Ireland (9.6); 

2008 – Wales (16.4); 

2005 – Wales (14.8); 

2004 – France (16.8); 

2003 – England (25.4); 

2002 – France (16.2).

Every other Slam campaign following Italy’s introduction to the championship has featured at least one single-figure win by the team who completed a clean sweep. Ireland’s victories this time have been by 21, 36 and 24 points. Their final fixture is at home to Scotland.

There is no polite way of putting this – the Giuseppe Garibaldi Trophy is an abomination, sadly.

In Lille on Sunday, Charles Ollivon and Michele Lamaro were pictured holding one side of it each, after France’s draw with Italy. 

They were both looking stern due to the result, which left both teams feeling aggrieved, but it also conveyed the impression that neither country were desperate to get their hands on such a odd-looking ‘prize’! I

f what they’re left with is an out-sized and mis-shaped black paper clip to try to stow in their luggage, no wonder neither of the rivals could bring themselves to win. 

At least Italy wore their change kit for the fixture, as rugby finally abandons the out-dated ritual of home teams being the ones to wear alternate colours in the event of a clash.

The Giuseppe Garibaldi Trophy is an abomination, with neither country keen on the prize

The Giuseppe Garibaldi Trophy is an abomination, with neither country keen on the prize

Six Nations team of the Week: C Winnett (Wal); T Menoncello (Ita), H Jones (Sco), B Aki (Ire), D Van der Merwe (Sco); F Russell (Sco), J Gibson-Park (Ire); A Porter (Ire), G Nicotera (Ita), T Furlong (Ire); P Tuilagi (Fra), T Beirne (Ire); M Lamaro (Ita), J Dempsey (Sco), R Darge (Sco).

Last Word – After Paolo Garbisi had missed his last-gasp kick for history against France, there were soon calls being made for the swift abolition of the shot clock.

Let’s just cut that out straight away, please. Anything at all which is an attempt to speed up this sport should be championed as a good thing. 

Paolo Garbisi's missed kick for history led to calls for the abolition of the game's shot clock

Paolo Garbisi’s missed kick for history led to calls for the abolition of the game’s shot clock

Far too often, it is stop-start and clunky as hell. Every effort must be made to make everyone GET ON WITH IT. Enough of the cynical time-wasting and the desperate go-slow attempts. 

If kickers insist on running down the (now visible) clock before every shot, they have to cope with the consequences when they suddenly have to hustle, as Garbisi did after the ball somehow fell off his tee in a wind-resistant stadium with a closed roof.

Everything in rugby needs speeding up. There were endless scrum resets over the weekend and a bonanza for box-kick devotees – which must be one of the most niche clubs in any sport. 

The rest of us are left bored to tears by the sight of so many caterpillar rucks being formed, so scrum-halves can dispatch the ball skywards yet again. It is pure tedium and this column would support an immediate ban. No chance of that, unfortunately.