|Venue: Aviva Stadium, Dublin Date: Sunday, 14 February Kick-off: 15:00 GMT|
|Coverage: Live on BBC Radio Ulster, BBC Sport website and app. Live text coverage on BBC Sport website and app.|
The immediate response to France’s World Cup quarter-final defeat by Wales was, unsurprisingly, not overwhelmingly positive.
France had done it again. Manoeuvred themselves into a strong position only to spectacularly self-destruct.
Much of the post-match ire was directed towards Sebastien Vahaamahina, whose inexplicable elbow was perhaps the single most baffling example of France beating themselves when the other team is struggling to do so.
Another sour end to a campaign that offered much promise. But after the wave of outrage subsided, the mood in France quickly picked up again.
A mixture of the emergence of a young, talented squad and Fabien Galthie’s promotion from assistant to head coach shone a new light on what might not have been such a disappointing World Cup after all.
“There’s a nice bit of pride seeping back into their national team,” said former Ireland fly-half Ronan O’Gara, now head coach at Top 14 side La Rochelle.
“Bizarrely the World Cup probably did that for them. I think they won a lot of hearts back with their performance in that tournament.”
As their performances in Japan gave reason for optimism, the appointment of Galthie was met with widespread approval from those involved with French rugby.
An already established presence who held existing influence and rapport with several members of the squad, Galthie introduced an influx of new players onto the senior panel, bringing them together with the World Cup core.
“Taking him with the French team to the World Cup in Japan made him understand a lot of things and gain experience,” former French flanker Serge Betson told Sportsound Extra Time.
“That’s why now he has been able to interact with the players, and has been able to get them to understand they need to be confident to play for France – that is the key aspect of what Galthie brings to this team.”
Last year saw a new France emerge, although the old habits proved too hard to kick entirely; Mohamed Haouas’ attempted punch saw Galthie’s side reduced to 14-men in the first half against Scotland, allowing the hosts to end France’s Grand Slam ambitions at Murrayfield.
It was the only blemish in an otherwise highly-productive 2020. Even the last game, the Autumn Nations Cup final against England, despite ending in defeat gave more reason for hope than despair as France’s fringe players took a fully-loaded England to the brink.
By the end of a prolonged year there was no doubt as to the direction in which Galthie’s men were travelling, the squad and the coaching staff were singing in unison.
“In general [in the past] there were clashes in personality between the players and the staff,” says Betson.
“I think Galthie learned a lot from that aspect, it’s not just him, it’s Raphael Ibanez the team manager who is taking that kind of human relationship where they try to talk to the player, to bring them the confidence to play as a team.”
‘They would run 200km to get to the French camp’
Where Galthie has been most successful so far is shedding France of their mercurial tag.
Red cards notwithstanding, you can have a fair idea of what to expect from France these days – there is no ambiguity, that has been drilled out of them by the new coaching staff.
“They are very much in-sync with what’s going on in world rugby,” said O’Gara.
“Under Galthie they have a lot of coaches and people where everything is definite.
“The line-out coach and the ruck coach have 12 minutes, the attack coach is 12 minutes and the defence coach is 12 minutes, it’s ‘bang, bang, bang, bang’ like that.
“They train at very high intensity on a Wednesday before a Test match and if you cannot do that session, you won’t feature on the weekend.”
“The mentality has changed. It is unbelievable to think, when I was coaching at Racing 92, you’d hear that some guys weren’t interested in going to the French camp.
“Now it’s the complete opposite. They’d run the 200km from La Rochelle to get to the French camp.”
‘This team wants titles now’
Fancied before the tournament, the first weekend of results played right into France’s hands as they emerged perhaps clearer favourites for their first Six Nations triumph since 2010 than they were before it started.
Of the undefeated sides, France’s form considerably trumps Wales, while Scotland have to go to Paris – although if their win at Twickenham is anything to go by, they will not travel in fear.
With defending champions England off the boil and now with now Grand Slam to play for, France are the team to beat and despite 10 trophy-less years, it is not something they are afraid to say.
“They’re talking about it over here. It’s on radio ads, it’s in the local media and the papers,” said O’Gara.
“This team wants titles now, never before has that been in their language.
“[Captain] Charles Ollivon was saying we want silverware, we want to win the Grand Slam.”
They now travel to Dublin, where they will meet an Ireland side reeling from a loss in Cardiff that they feel could have been a win.
It has been some time since France arrived at the Aviva Stadium as favourites, but that is what they are this week.
For years they have travelled as a team capable of putting on a show, but equally as likely to offer a meek surrender. To Galthie’s great credit, the latter no longer seems like a viable possibility.
Ireland will fancy themselves on home soil as they always do, but nothing but their best will beat a rejuvenated France on Sunday.
— to www.bbc.co.uk