France filled with optimism after thrilling win over England
There have been plenty of false starts for France since they reached the World Cup final in 2011.
A new coach inevitably brings hope of a new dawn. Philippe Saint-Andre, Guy Noves, Jacques Brunel all took up the job on a wave of mighty promises which ultimately crashed against the rocks of failure and gloom.
The appointment of Fabien Galthie to lead France towards the next World Cup on home soil in 2023 was met more with a shrug of the shoulders than a fistpump of joy.
Yet Sunday's 24-17 win over England in Galthie's first game in charge, changed the mood. French cheeks were rosier, the smiles broader and the moustaches of the old-timers bristled with pride at a truly impressive victory which lifts France to sixth in the world rankings.
Leadership on the field has been a problem for the French since Thierry Dusautoir retired in 2015. Those who followed struggled. Every team needs a number of leaders and France on Sunday showed that, perhaps, they now have them.
"Whether it was blowing hot or cold, there was an outstanding mindset with the players totally focussed on the advantage line," said general manager and former France captain Raphael Ibanez.
"We saw players who wanted to outdo themselves for their teammates."
New captain Charles Ollivon led from the front with two tries and fellow flanker Bernard Le Roux inspired teammates with his work rate, notching up 22 tackles.
Gael Fickou, who was elevated to 'defence captain', organised the backline superbly and demonstrated the impact that Shaun Edwards has had since arriving from Wales as the new defence coach.
"What we had much less during the World Cup is that each ball is difficult for our opponent," said Galthie. "And this attitude comes from Shaun Edwards."
It was a good day for the newcomers. Anthony Bouthier had an outstanding debut at full-back, gobbling up the high balls, putting in the tackles, linking well and firing an extraordinary howitzer of a relieving kick from within his own five metre line all the way up to the English five metre line.
Vincent Rattez, called into the team on Saturday as a late replacement for the injured Damian Penaud, clicked immediately on the wing, feeding Ollivon for a try and scoring one himself.
Prop Mohamed Haouas showed how far he has come since he spent five years as a youth under judicial supervision, with a superb performance at tighthead. It was only when he was replaced after 50 minutes that England found a foothold in the scrum and began to threaten.
Apart from one moment when he kicked the ball out thinking time was up, only to find there was another minute to play, Antoine Dupont was faultless, a throwback to the great French nines of yesteryear: Jacques Fouroux, Jerome Gallion and Pierre Berbizier.
Dupont pulled the strings, kept the French forwards on the move, linked superbly with Romain Ntamack, popped the pass for Ollivon's second try and upended a dangerous Willi Heinz right at the end when England were threatening.
He is a general in the making.
The French may have beaten the World Cup finalists but are far from the finished article. The scrum creaked, especially in the last quarter and the line-out was erratic.
"The scrum was solid for the first part of the match but when we changed the front row that destabilised things," said Galthie.
"At 24-0 we changed things and that meant we lost our dominance of the scrum and our base. We began to suffer."
France have a week to get their feet back on the ground before facing Italy. Given the Azzurri's feeble performance in Cardiff where they lost 42-0, it could be a chance to give some of the backups game time.
But Galthie is keen to avoid the idea of cheap caps.
"The idea is to build a squad. Caps are worth gold. The idea is to cap players, improve their abilities. A cap has a high price. Changing for changing's sake is not our strategy," he said.
"There are no small matches in the Six Nations," he said.
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