French rugby in perfect harmony 18 months before home World Cup

Let’s start with Ange Capuozzo’s break, one step, two steps, a swerve, a curve, a burst, 10, 20, 30, 40m and more past one, two, three, four, five, six, seven, eight, nine flailing Welsh defenders. You knew Capuozzo must be good just from the look of him when he came off the bench to make his debut against Scotland the previous week –a man that small and pretty must have something about him to get ahead in Test rugby – but it’s been startling to watch him this past fortnight, when he has scored two tries and set up one of the greatest, and most famous, in the history of the competition.

Photograph: Gonzalo Fuentes/Reuters© Provided by The Guardian Photograph: Gonzalo Fuentes/Reuters

Even in Cardiff, 400 miles away from the Stade de France and four hours before kick-off in the grand slam match, there was a French flavour to the championship. They know all about Capuozzo down in France’s second division. He qualified for Italy through his father but he was born, raised, and plays in Grenoble (for now; he is moving to Toulouse next season). In England, where the Premiership is ring‑fenced, that kind of promotion has become almost unthinkable, but in France it is not nearly so rare.

Related: Antoine Dupont try sinks England and secures grand slam for France

Capuozzo is not the only player who has stepped up to Test rugby from the second division in recent years. France’s full-back, Melvyn Jaminet, was playing there last season, so was the man from whom he took over, Anthony Bouthier, the season before that. The scrum‑half Léo Coly, who won his France first call-up at the start of the tournament, still is. Which speaks to the strength in depth of French rugby, yes, and the open-mindedness of their coaches, but also to the way in which winning the 2023 World Cup has become a national project for the French, one that has pulled in every last one of France’s 1,900-odd clubs. It is as if the next great player could come from anywhere.

On Saturday night Fabien Galthié even made a point of explicitly thanking them all for their support. He said: “We share this moment with all the French clubs, we are aware of the people who are behind us, and sharing this with them makes sense of what we do.” Right now, it feels as if France’s 23 have the weight of their nation behind them. It’s no wonder they were shoving England backwards in the scrums. There’s an irresistible momentum to French rugby, a sense that after 10 years of bickering, all the people involved in the sport – the federation, the amateur and professional clubs, the players, and the fans – are all pulling in the same direction.

General De Gaulle said it was hard to govern a country that has more than 200 kinds of cheese, and the FFR president, Bernard Laporte, will tell you it’s almost as hard to manage a federation that has the best part of 2,000 amateur clubs, who all have a vote in how the game should be run. And that is before you factor in relations with the 30 professional sides in the National Rugby League, who run the Top 14, which is the most lucrative, and gruelling, league in the world. There have been times, such as the match at Twickenham in 2020 when France were forced to do without so many of their best Test players because of a row about their availability, when it has been close to impossible.

For years, it felt like this jigsaw would never come together. But it has, piece by piece. It started with the Joueur Issus des Filières de Formation regulations, from 2016, just before Laporte was elected for his first term as president. They cut back the number of overseas players in the league by forcing the clubs to keep an average of at least 16 homegrown players in their squad across the season. After that, there were the negotiations over the financial compensation paid out to the clubs when they send their players for international duty. They worked out so well that, right now, France are able to name a training squad of 42 players, and hold on to 28 of them even when their clubs have matches in the fallow weeks.

Related: Paris savours a France team worthy of gracing the city of light | Jonathan Liew

At the same time, there has been huge investment in their youth setup, which led to the back‑to‑back titles in the World Under-20 Championship, and their national programme, which is of course run by Laporte’s old friend Galthié. The two of them were coach and captain of the team that lost to England in the semi-finals of the 2003 World Cup and they still have each other’s backs now.

When Laporte was fighting a re-election battle in 2020, Galthié said he would consider his position if he did not win the vote. In return Galthié has been given almost everything he has asked for, including what has grown into the strongest coaching unit in Test rugby. Incredible as it sounds, there was a time, not long ago, when France employed only two assistant coaches: one for the backs, one for the forwards.

Now they have an army of them. Raphaël Ibañez handles the man-management and Shaun Edwards marshals the defence, Laurent Labit runs the attack, William Servat does the scrummaging and Karim Ghezal the lineouts, Vlok Cilliers oversees the kicking, the former referee Jérôme Garcès works on their discipline, and the renowned trainer Thibault Giroud does the strength and conditioning. Which means that this golden generation of young players are stepping into the best-run coaching setup in the sport.

That combination put 40 points on the All Blacks in the autumn, don’t forget, and now they have won the grand slam, too, there is only one step left – the World Cup in 18 months’ time.

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