Throughout the history of Rugby World Cup, French rugby union teams have always played the role of the wild card in the pack.
As England’s strongest opponents in their RWC 2019 pool group, the French were touted as the team most likely to put a spanner in Eddie Jones’ plans.
However, England’s massive 44-8 spanking of Les Bleus on Sunday doesn’t just put Jones’ side top of the Six Nations table. It also gives the English a massive psychological advantage ahead of the Rugby World Cup in September.
Based on Sunday’s display by England, not to mention the French rugby team, the English must be firm favourites not just to win Pool C — which also contains Argentina, Tonga and the United States — but to possibly win the whole shebang.
But not so fast.
Rugby World Cup history is littered with teams that appear horribly off their game not long before the tournament, but somehow recover in time to put on a different showing several months later at the main showpiece that is the World Cup.
Eddie Jones himself will know this from personal experience. And everyone knows about France.
RWC 2003 – Australia
In 2003, Eddie Jones coached the Wallabies to a 50-21 hammering by the All Blacks in a Tri Nations/Bledisloe Cup match in Sydney. A defeat that was followed up by another defeat, 21-17, again by the All Blacks, in Auckland.
But four months later, Jones coached his team to one of their finest performances under him, upsetting RWC 2003 co-favourites New Zealand 22-10 in the famous “Stirling Mortlock intercept” match.
It was also the game that featured George Gregan’s “four more years” taunt to his opposing scrumhalf, Byron Kellaher.
The Wallabies then went on to lose a gripping final to England, 20-17, but only after extra time. Pretty good for a team all but written off less than five months before.
RWC 2015 – Wallabies, Pumas and Boks
The RWC 2015 was rife with beastly comebacks.
In the Autumn Internationals preceding the 2015 Rugby World Cup, England defeated Australia 26-17 — leading all to assume dire predictions for Australia’s chances in the coming World Cup.
But Australia effected another classic turnaround when it beat, and effectively knocked out, hosts England from their own party at the Rugby World Cup 2015. The English defeat led to the sacking of England coach Stuart Lancaster and the hiring of one Eddie Jones to become England’s first foreign coach. (Read on how England Six Nations is faring under Eddie Jones).
Another reversal involved Ireland, who comfortably beat hosts Argentina 2-0 in their series in June 2014. The next time they met, at RWC 2015, the Pumas comfortably kicked the Irish out of the quarterfinals, 43-20.
In that same World Cup too, South Africa exacted revenge on Wales when they beat them 23-19 in the quarterfinals. A match that was supposed to be highly winnable by Warren Gatland’s men, who had beaten the Springboks in the previous Autumn Internationals.
This year, Wales’ strongest rivals in their 2019 Rugby World Cup pool will be Australia, a team they have just beaten 9-6 in November — their first win in 14 matches.
Lest they forget, Wales must beware the warning about turnarounds: after all, the Wallabies, as we have seen above, seem to be masters at it.
RWC 2011 and 2007 – France
The kings of the turnaround, however, may be the very team that have just suffered their worst defeat to England since 1911.
The French not just conceded six tries while scoring only one, they were also fortunate the English claim to have “left 15 to 20 points out on the field”, according to the wily Australian Jones.
It was such a spanking that veteran rugby writers from north and south, Stephen Jones of the Sunday Times and Phill Gifford in the New Zealand Herald, have called this French rugby XV the worst they have ever seen.
The players have been labelled clueless, spineless and gutless. Jones suggested the French really should not have bothered turning up, and should look to hire a foreign coach to sort out the current mess in French rugby. Gifford meanwhile said the French should have turned up in a clown car.
But, the French have been here before, and more than once.
In the 2011 Six Nations tournament, France lost the title they had won the previous year when they lost 17-9 to England, who went on to win that year’s championship.
However, in the RWC quarterfinals later that year in New Zealand, the French turned the tables on England, knocking them out 19-12 and bringing an end to the England career of 2003 World Cup hero Jonny Wilkinson.
However, their finest moment came in 2007, when as hosts they knocked out hot favourites New Zealand 20-18, thanks to a hotly contested try by Yannick Jauzion — the Kiwis claimed that referee Wayne Barnes missed two forward passes in the buildup — and a terrific performance by flanker Thierry Dusautoir, who made two more tackles (38 in all) than the entire All Blacks team.
It was the shock of the tournament, and the earliest time New Zealand had ever been knocked out of the Rugby World Cup. On the plus side, for the Kiwis, though, is that it was a painful memory that has undoubtedly served as the wakeup call as New Zealand subsequently won the subsequent two World Cups in 2011 and 2015.
For France, the amazing thing was that the All Blacks had smashed them 2-0 in their Test series in New Zealand just four months previously, winning 42-11 and 61-10 — not even close, in other words.
Feather duster one day, rooster the next
Don’t write off the French just yet. Despite two soul-shattering Six Nations defeats so far, to add to their defeats by Fiji and South Africa last November, there is still a lot of talent in the French rugby game.
Young players such as Demba Bamba, Romain Ntamack, Thomas Ramos, Felix Lambey, Antoine Dupont should be allied properly with older hands such as Louis Picamoles, Wesley Fofana and Guilhem Guirado.
Even worth retaining are players such as Yoann Huget, Gael Fickou and Damien Penaud — nothing works better as a spur than humiliation.
All they really need to do now is change the coaching regime, someone to put the pieces back together again.
And France do raise their game when it comes to the World Cup, and could well do so in the RWC 2019.
England, and everyone else, beware.