Suggestions that Sunday’s Autumn Nations Cup final will descend into farce have struck a chord with France this week. According to the team manager, Raphaël Ibañez, they have resonated in the minds of the players, who “will not allow themselves to be pushed around”. Eddie Jones, for his part, is wary of the dangerous animal that will arrive at Twickenham and, at the risk of slipping into stereotypes, there are few things more dangerous than a French team who have been written off.
The statistics paint a bleak picture for France, however. They will line up with 68 caps in their side – England have 813 – and only one of France’s starters, Brice Dulin, is into double figures. Ben Youngs, Owen Farrell and George Ford all have more caps themselves than their opponents combined. The French pack has just 16 between them and the captain, Baptiste Couilloud, is making his first start. It was a callow side that beat Italy last weekend – it must be said by a bigger margin than England managed – but it has been further depleted by the uneasy agreement between the clubs and the union that French players can play only three of their six matches this autumn. In total, 20 players are unavailable because of that ruling with more, such as the fly-half Romain Ntamack, out injured.
Put like that, Ibañez understands why, looking from the outside, France will have to “overthrow mountains” to clinch the one-off title. “It must also be recognised that seen from abroad this final can be regarded as ‘a farce’. We can understand them. Our two national selections are not on the same footing. Unfortunately, that means some of our players had to justify their inclusion and the value of playing a Test match which looks too one-sided. It necessarily resonated in their minds. They were exemplary in their preparation. We won’t allow ourselves to be pushed around.”
The head coach, Fabien Galthié, seems more bothered by the lack of preparation afforded to France than lack of personnel available. Evidently France see themselves as underdogs but, nonetheless, Ibañez has praised the players “state of mind”, having finished second in the delayed Six Nations finale and reached tomorrow’s final. “England have years of collective experience and we have a young team who’ve had only two training sessions together,” said Galthié. “[But] we will be ready on Sunday, I can assure you that we will be ready.”
Jones agrees and highlights both their recent success at under-20 level, as well as their longer-term project towards hosting the 2023 World Cup as reasons not to underestimate France. “The consistency of the French team is that they have a certain system they play,” he said. “They are building up a project, they are all educated to play the French way, they’ll be looking at this as an opportunity to put their best foot forward, so they are a dangerous animal.”
Maybe he sees a bit of England in France too because, for all that les bleus have lit up international rugby this year, their vastly improved kicking game has been the bedrock of their success, with the South African kicking coach Vlok Cilliers having a considerable impact. Kicking, of course, has been a fundamental part of the way Jones’s side plays, and back in 2017 Galthié spent some time in the England camp at Jones’s invitation. He left convinced he had seen the future of international rugby, recalling in a column for L’Equipe: “It said a lot about the way Eddie Jones and his troops think about kicking – a big part of the game, not defensive play, it’s a continuation of offensive play, a way of putting on pressure and increasing the ‘metres per minute’ to recover the ball or force the opponent to make a mistake.”
Regardless of personnel then, Galthié – with a helping hand from Jones – does seem to have created an environment which suggests France will not be as outplayed as they were on their last visit to Twickenham when they were thrashed 44-8 under Jacques Brunel amid widespread reports of player mutiny. And for all those missing, there is firepower in this French side, not least the Fiji-born winger Alvereti Raka, who has three tries in his four Tests and makes his first international appearance since last year’s World Cup. England’s sizeable Saracens contingent know all about the threat he poses – Raka scored an unforgettable hat-trick against them for Clermont Auvergne three years ago.
“He’s an incredible player,” said the England hooker Jamie George. “We didn’t know too much about him before that game at Sarries but he scored three tries that day and passed about three over the line. He’s a huge threat.”