France's winger Damian Penaud (L) celebrates after scoring his second try against England last weekend
Paris (AFP) - Holders France host Wales in the final round of the Six Nations on Saturday with the two teams’ paths since the 2019 Rugby World Cup having taken very different directions.
In less than four years ex-Test captain Fabien Galthie has transformed an underperforming Les Bleus by leading them to last year’s Six Nations Grand Slam and they have lost just once since July 2021, to world number one side Ireland last month.
France’s impressive form and clinical approach were highlighted with a record 53-10 thumping of England at Twickenham last weekend.
“The match in England pleased us a lot,” Galthie said this week.
“We’re not going to hide that but we saw we had a lot to improve on.
“What’s good with that match was the intensity we played with opened doors and showed us we can play better,” he added.
Wales may have won the 2021 Six Nations under then new coach Wayne Pivac but the New Zealander was sacked last December and replaced by Warren Gatland after underwhelming defeats to the likes of Italy and Georgia.
Pivac’s compatriot Gatland returned to the team he had led for more than a decade, ending with a fourth-place finish at the World Cup in Japan.
Gatland’s side have won just once this campaign, in Italy last weekend, before the former British and Irish Lions boss rekindles a flame with former defence coach Shaun Edwards.
Edwards left Wales for Paris after the World Cup and has instilled a steely discipline to France’s play without the ball.
“I’m looking forward to it,” Gatland said.
“I’m sure he’ll be pretty pumped up this weekend,” he added.
- ‘Lagging behind’ -
Taulupe Faletau made his Wales debut in 2011
Gatland’s matchday squad has a host of players aged 30 or over including captain Ken Owens, veteran lock Alun Wyn Jones and fly-half Dan Biggar.
No. 8 Taulupe Faletau turned 32 in November and will win his 100th cap in the French capital.
“If I look at the squad, going through it, there are up to eight players in there who are potentially playing their last Six Nations game,” Gatland said.
“We’ve got to think about building for the World Cup this year, but also thinking about 2027 (World Cup).
“The ideal scenario is you want to go to a World Cup with a squad of mid to late 20s with 40 or 50 caps.
“The message to them who might be playing their last Six Nations game is to enjoy the occasion and the moment,” he added.
Saturday’s hosts are in a different situation with Galthie’s squad averaging at 26 years old with 26 caps, a decade and 10 Tests fewer than the former scrum-half hoped for after taking over in December 2019.
“We’re lagging compared to what we hoped to be four years later,” Galthie said.
“Even with our desire and vision to build collective experience, we lost a few players on the road, we had injuries too.
“We’re learning, but it’s slower than predicted,” he added.
The fixture will mark Les Bleus’ final home competitive game before welcoming New Zealand on September 8’s opening game of the World Cup.
They can retain the Championship with a bonus point victory and hope Ireland lose by more than seven points to England later in the day.
“Honestly we’re not looking ahead to anything but this competition,” Galthie said.
“We can still win the Six Nations. We know what we have to do.
“Then Sunday, we’ll move onto something else,” he added.