Les Misérables are smiling: French rugby is back in harmony

JEROME PUGMIRE (AP Sports Writer)
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Les Misérables are smiling: French rugby is back in harmony

France's head coach Fabien Galthie looks on before the Six Nations rugby union international between Wales and France the Six Nations rugby union international between Wales and France at the Principality Stadium in Cardiff, Wales, Saturday, Feb. 22, 2020. (AP Photo/Rui Vieira)

PARIS (AP) -- England was coming and promising to unleash brutality. French fans braced for impact on the Six Nations' opening weekend.

And a funny thing happened in Paris. England was brutalized.

A France side full of Six Nations novices and averaging 10 caps per man pulled off a stunning upset of the tactically inept title favorite.

And it was no fluke. This month, France followed up with a five-try dicing of Italy and ending Wales' title defense in Cardiff. At the halfway stage of the championship, France leads and is the only team unbeaten. It hasn't hit these heights in 10 years.

After the longest period of forgettable results in 90 years in the championship, France is undergoing a staggering turnaround under new coach Fabien Galthie.

''The whole world knew that the day the French side woke up they would be unpredictable,'' former France winger Emile Ntmack said. ''And in some matches, the best team in the world.''

THE FREEFALL

When France narrowly lost the 2011 Rugby World Cup final to New Zealand 8-7 at fortress Eden Park, nobody thought it was the end of the good times.

France swept the Six Nations the year before, and was runner-up that World Cup year.

But the dropoff was sudden and sustained. France owned the wooden spoon in 2013 and has mostly occupied the bottom half of the championship standings.

After the eccentric yet innovative coach Marc Lievremont left in 2011, successors Philippe Saint-Andre, Guy Noves, and Jacques Brunel failed to revive the side.

Saint-Andre was too experimental, and Noves and Brunel clung stubbornly to old methods.

Talent was oozing from the Top 14, but it wasn't transforming into a national team worthy of its parts. Confidence was battered, inspiration was in short supply, and France's identity was muddled. Test caps were cheap, and the side was being swept aside by the merciless thrust of high-octane modern rugby and its required levels of unfailing concentration and relentless physicality.

Things became so bad under Brunel, who'd come from the Italy job, that the shambolic 44-8 loss to England last year was a 15th in 19 games. In that run also were a first defeat to Fiji, and a lucky last-gasp draw with Japan. Both at home.

OMNISCIENT EYE

From his commentary box as a national television pundit, perched high up at Stade de France, the bespectacled Galthie calmly witnessed the drudgery on show in blue jerseys.

The proud former captain and elite scrumhalf must have been raging inside.

He wasn't in the conversation for the national job. He'd led Stade Francais to the Top 14 title and Montpellier to the final. He was given Toulon for a year, failing to lead it to the semifinals on a countback of tries, and was fired in 2018. But after another dismal fourth-place finish by France in the 2019 Six Nations, Bernard Laporte was driven by sheer panic to fast-track Galthie into Brunel's coaching staff to try and avoid an embarrassing Rugby World Cup by the team in Japan.

When the clubs didn't want a foreign coach to replace Brunel, Laporte told Galthie he'd have the job after the World Cup. But most observers quickly concluded Galthie was more in charge than Brunel, such was the spike in energy. Ultimately, France was a whisker away from reaching the semifinals, just beaten by Wales after receiving a typically self-inflicted red card.

Then, Galthie's first official squad was a revelation. He threw out the thirtysomethings and mined the under-20s side which won the last two junior world championships. His first Six Nations squad had seven new caps; most were aged 23 or younger.

Galthie made his ambition clear. He was aiming to win the 2023 Rugby World Cup final at the Stade de France, and he was starting now.

''Galthie has dared to take the players the others didn't want,'' said Richard Dourthe, a former France center who played beside Galthie.

STYLISH MOVERS

As well as the wins have been celebrated, has also been their manner.

The French respect toughness but they love flair. And there has been slick attacking moves orchestrated by the quicksilver scrumhalf Antoine Dupont and gifted flyhalf Romain Ntamack. Backs and forwards have rediscovered a common purpose, backing each other up and spreading the wealth.

France's ooh-la-la running game has returned 11 tries from three matches. In the 2019 Six Nations, France netted 12 in total, the most since 2010.

Perhaps the best try yet was one that was disallowed. Against Wales in Cardiff, a half break by fullback Anthony Bouthier was carried on by center Virimi Vakatawa. The ball was moved inside, and Ntamack crosskicked over to the left touchline, where Gael Fickou caught it. He cut inside defenders and scored. But it was ruled out as Bouthier's offload was found to be slightly forward. Still, the desire and daring was hard to miss.

FRIENDS REUNITED

A chronic weakness has turned into a major strength, thanks to Galthie and his right-hand man, team manager Raphael Ibanez.

They shared blood and sweat on international fields many times: 98 caps for the feisty but celebral hooker Ibanez; 64 for the slippery and cunning scrumhalf Galthie.

Nearing the end of their playing days, they enjoyed a Grand Slam triumph in 2002.

Now they are reunited with two missions in mind: Leading Les Tricolores back to the top of northern hemisphere rugby, and building a platform strong enough to win the Rugby World Cup at home in 2023.

Joining them is a backroom staff which has yanked the team into the modern era in a matter of weeks.

SOLID CREW

Galthie used his strong club connections to prise the highly rated Laurent Labit from Paris' Racing 92. Labit is the backs coach, and his attacking touch is shining through.

William Servat, France's iron hooker at the 2011 World Cup, has joined forces with former Racing 92 back-rower Karim Ghezal in coaching the forwards. They are both aged around 40 which, in coaching terms, means young and hungry. The progress on France's rucks and lineouts has been illuminating. And there was one under-manned scrum which ripped apart Wales for a tighthead to be proud of.

Thibault Giroud was snapped up from former European champion Toulon to cover strength and conditioning. France's fitness levels, shoddy in recent years, have shot through the roof. The team conceded two tries each to England, Italy, and Wales in the second halves but refocused and shut them back down.

Perhaps the biggest catch was former England rugby league star Shaun Edwards. Over 12 years, he helped Wales as the defence coach become the best side in the northern hemisphere. Wales offered two more years. Instead, he took France's four-year offer.

His imprint in defence is unmissable. France made a staggering 218 tackles against Wales. While the team was a man short for 20 minutes it conceded two converted tries, but no more.

The tough-minded Edwards almost smiled afterward. Almost.

''It is having pride in the line, thankfully these French guys do,'' he said.

BIG-GAME PLAYER

Ntamack looked the part of a cool and calm international when his kicking settled nerves in France's opening Rugby World Cup game against Argentina, a hard-fought win which boosted morale in an uncertain camp.

But although he did well in Japan, he was playing within his ability and stood out more for his reliability than creativity.

Four months later, he's emerged as a big-game player of the highest caliber.

Against Wales, he made a brilliantly timed interception for a try which deflated Wales just when it had gained precious momentum.

His father wasn't bad either. Emile Ntamack was one of the finest wingers to play for France. He, like former England flyhalf Jonny Wilkinson, has been mesmerised by what he's seen.

''When Romain plays, I ask myself, 'How is he going to surprise me again?''' the proud father said. ''I'm stunned. When you're playing in one of the toughest competitions in the world, with the best players, and you do things out of the ordinary then it's impossible to take this for granted.''

INSTANT CHEMISTRY

Dupont, 23, and Ntamack, 20, look like they have been playing together for a decade.

They may do yet given how young and good they are.

When Dupont zips off the back of the scrum, beware. His ability to break the first two tackles, thanks to a low center of gravity and strong acceleration, makes him a fulcrum to launch blistering attacks.

Ntamack has the gift of making time stand still, unruffled in his thought process like England World Cup-winning great Wilkinson. Always in the right position to punish, Ntamack has a wide passing range and spots gaps early. Plus, he's good with his feet: A perceptive grubber-kicker, and reliable under pressure on penalty kicks.

CAPTAIN CHARLES

Try-scorer, leader, inspiration ... these fit flanker Charles Ollivon.

Galthie's surprise pick for the armband after veteran Guilhem Guirado retired from tests has proved extremely shrewd.

Ollivon had 11 caps when Galthie picked him. He rewarded that faith with a two-try salvo in the win against England. He has a tournament-leading three tries, and has helped to set up three more.

Guirado was a strong leader but - although commendably honest - expressed too much frustration when France was struggling.

Ollivon is measured and calm. His upper-body strength and speed make him a rampaging winger-flanker very hard to stop.

Just ask England.

ATTACKING RUCKS, RUNNING LINES

Ollivon, fellow flanker Francois Cros and No. 8 Gregory Alldritt have transformed France from a stagnant side around the rucks to an attacking one.

Alldritt has quick hands and a sharp eye. He adds mobility to a back row which previously was steely enough, but predictable with hulking No. 8 Louis Picamoles used as a battering ram.

So, too, were centers Mathieu Bastareaud and Geoffrey Doumayrou. Now France's attacking lines around Fickou and midfield partner Virimi Vakatawa are much smoother.

Vakatawa is a former sevens winger who wasn't effective on the wing in 15s. Moving him inside has been a brilliant decision.

IMMEDIATE FUTURE

When Vakatawa was injured against England, in stepped Arthur Vincent.

It wasn't the toughest debut against Italy, but his polished performance underlined why he was France's captain when it won the Under-20 World Cup last year. He was teammates with Ntamack when they won it in 2018. Backup flyhalf Matthieu Jalibert played for the under-20s in 2017.

They're among the young champions embedded in the senior squad, who France hope will form its spine for years to come.

A first Six Nations title since 2010 beckons. Les Miserables are smiling, and French rugby is getting back to being feared again.

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