PARIS (AP) — The Rugby World Cup could be problematic for a France team struggling to emerge from a slump which has turned confident players into doubtful ones.
A reputation for flair has been eroded by miserable seasons of Six Nations mediocrity. France has become a lineup dogged by nerves, lacking fitness and composure, and repeatedly cracking under pressure late in games. And perhaps still mentally scarred by the 62-13 hammering by New Zealand at the last World Cup.
It makes for grim reading that France, a three-time Rugby World Cup finalist, has not placed higher than third in the past eight Six Nations tournaments. The French are in a tough pool in Japan along with England, Argentina, Tonga and the United States, and only two teams from each group can progress to the quarterfinals.
Coaches have come and gone since France pushed the All Blacks hard in the 2011 final, losing by one point under the maverick yet effective leadership of Marc Lievremont. Philippe Saint-Andre's chopping-and-changing didn't work; Guy Noves stuck to old methods but could not replicate his resounding club success at Toulouse.
The situation deteriorated under Jacques Brunel, with France hitting new lows: a home draw against Japan, a home loss to Fiji and a crushing 44-8 defeat away to England. Those were matches littered with mistakes by the French, a predictable running game, a lack of physical impact, staggering lapses in concentration, players critical of management.
The stubborn Brunel has appeared to be out of his depth against better-coached teams. Something had to give, but rather than firing Brunel — as many fans demanded — French Rugby Federation president Bernard Laporte made a more diplomatic move in appointing Fabien Galthié as Brunel's assistant coach.
It spared Brunel the humiliation of being fired and gave the critics some of what they asked for, while putting the modern-minded Galthié perfectly into position to take charge fulltime following the World Cup in Japan.
As a TV commentator for more than a decade, Galthié is well placed to note what's been going wrong, and it helps that France's players will look up to him as one of the best scrumhalves to have worn the Tricolores jersey.
Galthié has revamped the backroom staff, urgently improving poor fitness levels and sharpening up dull tactics. The French performances have looked better in the three games since Galthié was appointed, scoring 13 tries and one penalty try in home wins against Scotland (32-3) and Italy (47-19) and a 17-14 loss away to the Scots.
Encouragingly, France played with better width and attacking intent. And some fine talents are emerging — notably 20-year-old flyhalf Romain Ntamack; right winger Damian Penaud (22) and No. 8 Grégory Alldritt. Left winger Aliveriti Raka made a try-scoring debut two minutes into the win against Scotland.
But the 2023 World Cup could be where they really shine. Because for all the improvements in France's running game, the same mistakes were still glaring in Scotland as soon as the opposition intensity went up a notch. The French wasted a two-try lead, looked sluggish in the attacking rucks and again made costly fumbles.
There will be no room for such sloppiness in Japan.
France kicks off its Pool C campaign against 2015 semifinalist Argentina, and might need to beat 2003 champion England in the last pool game to qualify for the knockout rounds. In between are two games in four days against the U.S. and the tough-tackling Tongans.
"We're coming out of a few difficult years — I don't think we can be world champions," said Alldritt, realistically.
France beat Argentina 28-13 last November but this Pumas squad will be hardened by the Rugby Championship this summer. Argentina opened the southern hemisphere competition with a narrow 20-16 loss to the All Blacks and succumbed 16-10 to Australia before losing heavily to winner South Africa.
So Brunel has to make the right selections first up, or France could be on the back foot early.
Does he stick with the powerful veteran Louis Picamoles at No. 8 after a disappointing Six Nations, or trust the more mobile yet less experienced Alldritt?
Can Camille Lopez be France's crafty strategist at flyhalf, or will he be the error-ridden bag of nerves who botched moves during the Six Nations? Is Ntamack ready to shoulder such responsibility with just eight test caps? Both are kickers, so whoever gets the nod will need his shooting boots on at Tokyo Stadium on Sept. 21.
Brunel acknowledges most observers have written off his squad's chances of reaching the knockout stages.
"If I listen to what's being said, we're not being given much credit. The objective is to qualify," he said. "It's our first challenge; we know how hard our pool is."