CASTRES, FRANCE – Teddy Thomas’s wondertry may have grabbed all the headlines – but the greatest praise has to be reserved for the French pack – in particular the immense Bernard La Roux. After France had allowed Australia to make a game out of what had, for a wonderful-yet-all-too-brief while, threatened to be a rout, their pack held firm seven metres from their own line at the death to ensure Les Bleus won their second Test in a row.
But, despite the joyful scenes at Stade de France, let’s not get too carried away.
The 29-26 win is a result that – with one more Test against Argentina to come before the end of the year – puts an unlikely and thin veneer of respectability on what has been another miserable year for Philippe Saint-Andre’s France.
They finished fourth in the Six Nations, with victories at home over England and Italy, and a solitary away win over Scotland in Edinburgh. Then, they went to Australia – and shipped 95 points while losing all three Tests.
Their 2014 record, so far, stands at played 10, won five. It’s an improvement on France’s 2013 stats, when they won just two and drew one out of 11 Tests.
Maybe it is a sign that, despite everything, France are heading in the right direction. It may even be a hint, though it’s massively unlikely, that the entire rugby world has been duped by a four-years-in-the-making Saint-Andre long con.
Whatever, and this may be just coincidence, but these November internationals have seen the end of the Toulousain dominance of the French national side – and they have, to date, seen more of that mythical French flair than any other Bleus side for years. Combined.
It was never more evident than when Racing Metro’s brilliant wingman Teddy Thomas – who became the second Bleu to score a hat-trick of tries on debut against Fiji last week – skirted, skated and danced his way past six Australian tacklers during a 35m solo run to score France’s second try and take them 17-6 clear.
Earlier, Toulon’s combative scrum-half Sebastien Tillous-Borde darted out from the base of a ruck close to the Australian line to score his second try for France in a 10-match international career that dates back to 2008 – but, until this November’s Tests, who has been mysteriously absent from the squad since 2009.
That said, be in no doubt that this was a very different France to the one that had toured the land Down Under in the summer. This France didn’t collapse like a bad flan in a cupboard under early Australian pressure. This France rose in dangerous style when a clever crossfield kick from Camille Lopez found Yoann Huget, who shipped the ball on to Scott Spedding.
The fullback was brought down short of the line, but it suggested that this France were willing – and, more importantly, able – to give better than they got, and would do so with a dash of the oft-talked-about and much-missed Gallic flair.
But, with Gallic flair comes Gallic indiscipline and occasional Gallic sloppiness.
Two unnecessary penalties allowed Australia to stay in the game – and when two players slipped off tackles to allow Adam Ashley-Cooper to score a try on the right wing, Bernard Foley converted to reduce the gap to four points. He then slotted another penalty on the stroke of half-time.
Lopez converted two penalties as Australia were sanctioned for high tackles early in the second period, but Foley’s fourth penalty meant Australia were still in the mix, despite being on the back foot for most of the game.
But things changed. Saint-Andre’s favoured midfield blunt instrument Mathieu Bastareaud came on at half-time, which meant a change in tactics – and an early bath for Gallic Flair. Gone were almost all attempts to get the ball out to Huget and Thomas, who – disappointingly – found themselves largely unemployed for the second 40.
A change in tactics like this would backfire badly if the opponents were New Zealand or South Africa, who have the skills and, if necessary, the sheer bloodyminded firepower to find a way round or through the hastily erected wall of French rugby conservatism.
But, this time it worked. Just. France kept Australia at arms’ length until replacement fly-half Remi Tales was sin-binned a few minutes after coming onto the pitch. Australian lock Rob Simmons made the most of the extra space to cross the French line following Quade Cooper’s clever offload.
Foley added the conversion to bring Australia back to within three points – but, as the clock ran down, James Horwill knocked on seven metres out, and the French pack gutted out a reset scrum. Chasing one last chance to win, the Australian pack was penalised and Rory Kockott hoofed the ball into row Z of Stade de France to start the celebrations.
Whether they’re premature or not remains to be seen. For now, French rugby is threatening to start enjoying itself for the first time in years.
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