Inside the journey which took France from global laughing stock to World Cup contenders

The moment of truth is nigh – after a decade of careful curation and systemic change, a team has been assembled with one aim in mind

Antoine Dupont and Fabien Galthie – Inside the journey which took France from global laughing stock to World Cup contenders
A win at their home World Cup would be the cumination of decade's work within French rugby

It is mid-June and global club rugby’s most opulent event kicks off north of Paris. The Top 14 final, between the titans of Toulouse and La Rochelle, is a sold-out circus. The streets of the French capital, situated hundreds of kilometres away from either of the two competing sides, are awash with the rouge et noir of Toulouse, and the jaune et noir of La Rochelle – as well as the accompanying bands and airhorns – amid the evening sunshine.

At the stadium, Telegraph Sport has exclusive access to the Presidential Suite, where Emmanuel Macron hosts other luminaries – from both inside and outside of the rugby world. In a large salon, hundreds of VIPs gather to watch a Toulousain victory, with the champagne flowing and the steak sizzling before Macron heads to the dressing rooms to see off a beer with the victors after the match.

The cachet of the Top 14 final is timeless, but France leading the field in all aspects of rugby has not been. Between the 2011 and 2019 World Cups, France’s average Six Nations finish was fourth; despite having reached the World Cup final on three occasions – only New Zealand have featured more frequently – Les Bleus imploded in both 2015 and 2019, failing to progress beyond the quarter-finals.

For the richest domestic rugby scene in the world and for a country of such fertile rugby history and tradition, that simply was not good enough. France had become a laughing stock, something had to be done.

The big hitters of the French state are fully invested in their country's World Cup bid Credit: Reuters/Ludovic Marin

In the last 18 months, France have first and second-placed Six Nations finishes on their roll of honour, an under-20 world championship title, and a Top 14 club has won both of Europe’s domestic cups in the past two seasons. France has four professional leagues and, notwithstanding some rotten injury luck, Les Bleus are favourites for their home World Cup.

Something was done. This is France’s journey from disorganised, under-performing rabble to princes of Europe, on the cusp of sporting immortality.

Fabien Galthié – and his lieutenants

The 2019 World Cup quarter-final between France and Wales is best remembered for Sébastien Vahaamahina’s elbow to opposing flanker Aaron Wainwright.

But that match, which saw France’s hopes of glory swill down the plughole with Vahaamahina’s early bath, marked a new dawn for French rugby. Jacques Brunel, a respected and successful coach at club level, would be stepping down after the tournament, having failed to transform France’s fortunes.

To mitigate for Brunel’s departure, the Fédération Française de Rugby (FFR) allowed the head coach’s successor, Fabien Galthié, to shadow the backroom staff at the tournament. As Brunel headed off into the sunset, Galthié could hit the ground running. The Rugby Football Union had a similar concept in the works regarding Steve Borthwick taking over from Eddie Jones, but events there took a rather different turn. 

As Galthié‘s tenure began in December 2019, work hastily took place behind the scenes to engineer a club-country agreement that suited the new head coach’s vision. Galthié’s experience as a Top 14 head coach meant he could sympathise with the wishes of the club presidents, while also bearing in mind that, for France’s domestic scene to be taken seriously, the national team had to function better.

The negotiations resulted in Galthié being able to call up 42 players to his training squads, instead of 31 as it was under Brunel, with 14 released on the Thursday of each match week. It might sound sensible and logical to have enough players in a squad whereby 15 can face 15 in training-game scenarios, but sense and logic have often gone out the window where French rugby is concerned.

“The clubs are working hand-in-hand with the federation, not complaining and whining the way they did back in the day, because they realised that, without a good international side, the club audience can suffer, too,” Fabrice Dolo, president of fifth-tier Sarcelles, tells Telegraph Sport.

Peter McNaughton, an exiled Scot with a long history at the FFR – and now in charge of its international development –also hails the influence of the enigmatic Galthié, alongside the recruitment of his back-room team. Shaun Edwards departed Wales to bring his Wigan charm to France’s defence; Laurent Labit left Racing 92 as attack coach; William Servat, that granite French hooker, took care of the pack; line-out oracle Karim Ghezal was installed alongside Thibault Giroud as the conditioning guru; and Galthié‘s former team-mate, Raphaël Ibañez, was brought in to oversee it all as manager.

Galthie has to be credited with canny appoitments such as that of defence guru Shaun Edwards Credit: PA Wire/Adam Davy

“Having coached Toulon in the Top 14, Galthié realised that there was too much demand on the top players,” McNaughton says. “Since France were named as hosts of the 2023 World Cup, in 2019, everything fell into place. Galthié was instrumental in that. He was given the financial means and he selected very cleverly the team that he wanted. But the availability of the pro players, Galthié was behind that – and it was a key part of the whole thing.”

Simon Gillham, Brive president, adds: “Appointing Galthié and the people around him . . . Everyone talks about Galthié, but people don’t talk enough about Ibañez, the impact he’s had on the management ethos, the values, the pride in the shirt - all that stuff which had gone AWOL.”

With greater access to players and, consequently, an improved standard of training, France’s renaissance was swift. Victories against every so-called ‘Tier One’ nation followed over the course of the next two years, as well as an historic Grand Slam in 2022, over ten years since the previous.

With such swift results, however, it did pose the question: why had no one done this before? Was it really that easy? The short answer is no. The swiftness of success came amid a perfect storm; French rugby was finally getting its canards in a row.

The path to that memorable Grand Slam started seven years before Galthié‘s first match as head coach, with an idea of Castres president, Pierre-Yves Revol, that most people in England would likely associate with an anachronistic cleaning product than a rugby regulation: JIFF.

Investing in youth

Ask anyone who’s anyone in French rugby as to why the league and national team are thriving and the word ‘JIFF’ will more than likely be uttered. JIFF is the acronym which describes the regulation of home-grown players appearing in French matchday squads.

To qualify as JIFF, a player must have been registered with the FFR for at least five years before turning 23, or have spent three seasons in an FFR-approved training centre before turning 21.

When the regulation was introduced, clubs were only permitted 16 non-JIFF players across their entire squad. Now, the system is tighter, more sophisticated: there are different stipulations for promoted teams; if a club’s JIFF quota is particularly impressive then extra funds are made available to them; clubs must have an average of 16 JIFF players in their matchday squads across the season; if they fall short in this regard, then they can be docked points. Suddenly, the LNR meant business.

A steady increase in the number of JIFF players that clubs are obliged to field in a season over the past 10 years has meant that the Top 14 and ProD2 clubs have been able to rely less and less on foreign imports. They have been forced to develop and invest in their own – otherwise, they would not have had the squad depth to compete.

Sébastien Piqueronies, director of rugby at Pau in the Top 14 and previously the head coach of France’s under-20 golden generation, was described to Telegraph Sport as the “mastermind” of France’s junior rugby hegemony. In his view, the JIFF has been instrumental.

“JIFF has played a fundamental role,” he says. “These regulations, alongside improved development, have allowed young French players to play more – and to a higher standard. We have 30 fully professional clubs, and each one has its own academy - so, in the landscape of French rugby, any youngster, regardless of what age they start playing elite rugby, is well trained, developed. Evidently, the JIFF regulations have played a major part in that but the ability of these youngsters to play quickly, as soon as they leave the academy, is just as important.

A commitment to giving young players opportunities at club level has helped proliferate the talent pool within French Rugby Credit: Getty Images/Franck Fife

“France has found its model of training and development. We are now reaping the rewards of something that has been in place for the past eight, ten years.”

The inception of the JIFF regulations was not welcomed from all angles, however, but the LNR and FFR persevered. Certainly, in Toulon, where a team of foreign galacticos dominated French and European rugby, the reception was hostile. Gillham, for one, despised the idea – and he was not alone.

“The JIFF system has, at last, started to work,” Gillham says. “It has taken a few years. The relationship between club and country has been good for a few years, with everyone wanting to pull together for the World Cup.

“We all hated it when it came in because people were talking about quotas; a horrible word. I voted against JIFF. I was completely wrong. I’m absolutely loving it now. I’m so proud that we have Leo Carbonneau, son of Philippe, playing scrum-half for us at 18. Mathis Ferté playing at full-back – when he came on last week, the crowd went berserk – he’s 19! It’s because he’s a local boy. He was one of the stars of France’s under-20s victory.”

McNaughton adds: “Maurad Boudjellal [Toulon’s billionaire president] reacted very poorly, saying that France was a racist country and that the FFR was racist because they were imposing quotas,” he says.

“At the time, a lot of the pro clubs didn’t like it, but it did go through. That was the trigger because everyone knew there were a lot of home-born players around, but they just weren’t getting the game time in professional rugby. That was the starting point.”

The trickle-down effect of the JIFF cannot be underestimated, either. Even in the tiers below, there are quotas on foreign players, as Dolo explains.

“It’s not just the JIFF [for Top 14 and ProD2] but also, at Fédérale level,” he says. “At Sarcelles, we can’t have more than four foreign players in your side. Now, all clubs have to produce their own players. Before, they would sign or loan Georgians or Kiwis – but now they can’t do it. It’s made the development better.

“Do you remember the time that there was no French tighthead starting in the Top 14? For a country that loves scrummaging! Ridiculous.”

It was not just the JIFF regulations that have spurred this revitalisation. It is all part of a potent cocktail; the next ingredient of which involved appreciating the diverse, cosmopolitan state that France has become.

City of increasingly bright lights

No one would ever describe Paris as the heartland of French rugby. Although the historic glamour and grandeur of Racing 92 – as well as, more recently, Stade Francais – is well known throughout the rugby world, the bedrock of the game in France has traditionally been the south. Specifically, the south west, with Toulouse as the behemoth.  

McNaughton believes that, between 1970 and 2000, there were barely 15 players who played for France hailing from Île-de-France (the wider region that includes Paris). Since 2000, however, McNaughton estimates that number to be almost up to 40. But, why? The answer is immigration. Taking advantage of France’s multiculturalism; diversity, inclusion and some committed, eagle-eyed scouting from a little-known coach by the name of Alain Gazon.

“It’s definitely to do with these athletic kids, who have been scouted in poor, black or north-African immigrant areas,” McNaughton explains. “It’s not really about pro clubs. Their physical potential had already been evidenced in the French football team. The 1998 football World Cup, in France, won by France, was a big moment; the population realised that a quarter of the team were kids from these areas. That was a jolt for rugby at the time – we started to get out there, to Massy, Sarcelles, Gennevilliers and others. Below the three pro clubs – Racing 92, Stade Francais and [third-tier] Massy – the next five best clubs in the region are from those areas. It’s not just more numbers and more professional rugby. It’s more that we’ve been out and scouted those kids. I like to think we’ve made rugby a little less of a white middle-class sport.  

“Massy, in the third tier, has by far been the most instrumental. Yacouba Camara, Cameron Woki, Jordan Joseph. Gazon watched Joseph when he was 12, met his parents and got him to come to Massy. Gazon is 70 now, he was sent to the Paris region as a postal worker back in the 70s and thought he might have stayed for three years and headed back to Agen or wherever he was from. But he stayed and built this whole thing in Massy, but then Jacky Lorenzetti [Racing 92’s president] head-hunted him and he went there – it’s definitely down to him that Racing 92 have the Wokis, Tongas etc.  

Cameron Woki is one of a number of young players to hail from outside the traditional hotbed of the sport in the south west Credit: Getty Images/David Rogers

“What we realised in Île-de-France, in 2004, whereas we used to get thrashed when we played Midi-Pyrénées or Languedoc-Roussillon, we pitched up with a team with Bastareaud and Fofana in the centre – and suddenly we won! That was when, at local level, we started saying to the clubs that they had to go out and work with the schools. We urged the creation of a genuine link between local school and club.”

For Dolo, president at Sarcelles – a club at the heart of this Parisian spark – the picture is the same.

“For many years, one of the problems in French rugby was that everything was in the hands of a select few who all hailed from the same region – the south west,” he says. “When you’re in this closed bubble, you don’t realise the rest of the world is changing, and you’re being left behind. 

“Maybe seven years ago, a young generation appeared and won the world championship. Some of those players came from very different backgrounds to the ‘traditional’ rugby player in France. They weren’t born in the south west, or near Toulouse, many were from the banlieues or suburbs. They stunned everyone with their physical abilities. 

“People used to ask me whether we had any Fijians or Tongans playing with us, and my answer was always: ‘We don’t need them. We’re in the suburbs and we have everything we need.’

“People who are fit, strong runners … fighters almost. Youngsters who almost had to fight every day for what they needed.

“The FFR has started throwing a bit of money in our direction, investing in these rough suburbs because they know that they might be tomorrow’s diamonds.”  

Top 14 glitz and ProD2 grit

On Thursday night, Gillham’s Brive, in the second-tier ProD2, will host league leaders Provence. Brive play in Brive-la-Gaillarde, with a population of around 50,000, but 10,000 are expected at Stade Amédée-Domenech. 

What makes that statistic even more remarkable is that in the past 10 seasons, Brive have yo-yoed between the Top 14 and ProD2, but has never finished above eighth in the top flight. 

Brive are no anomaly. Last season, half of the clubs in the second tier boasted an average attendance of over 5,000. A thriving second division, with movement between the top flight, is vital to French rugby’s success. It is also significant that the two leagues are run and managed as a group of 30 clubs together, with the same governing body and a joint television deal, rather than as separate entities.

“The year we were going to finish eighth or ninth in the Top 14, we had no chance of being relegated and no chance of being in the play-offs,” Gillham says. “Our gates dropped - there was no jeopardy! Jeopardy and promotion sell tickets. It’s what brings out the best in clubs - and in rugby.

“And we have been allowed to flourish as a 30. And every single game is televised – that’s important – the fact is you feel important because you can tell your sponsors, and anyone, that we’re on TV on Canal+ at 19.30 on Thursday night. That’s huge.  

“All these kids want to be Mbappé, but they can’t be. And the local clubs have realised that – and so have the kids.

“There’s money in the ProD2 now, too. We have an operating budget this year of somewhere between €16-17million, which had previously been unheard of. In 2007, €17 million was the highest budget in the Top 14! Now, they’re between €35-40 million.

“Fourteen Top 14 clubs and 16 ProD2 clubs. We work as a 30. We sit in a big room in a horseshoe shape and we argue our balls off. But, in the end, we make decisions and we vote. Where England messed up was ring-fencing – whatever you want to call it – the Premiership.”

René Bouscatel, LNR president, points to the diversity of the two leagues as another advantage. “We have widened our base,” he says. “Little by little, the level of the second division has increased in a sporting sense, in an attractability sense, and in a financial sense.

“It has allowed us to have clubs spread around the country. There are emerging clubs like Vannes, Rouen, Massy, Angouleme, Nevers, which are not traditional rugby heartlands but now are professional hubs – there is real appetite there.

The popularity of rugby in France is peaking Credit: Shutterstock/James Crombie

“I’m not judging, but I think that the directors of the English clubs have prioritised the economics, the interests of their own clubs, rather than doing it for the bigger picture of professional rugby.”

The television deal is critical. A new contract was agreed with Canal+, from the start of the 2023/24 season and running for four years, for an annual £97.5 million, representing a 17 per cent increase on the previous deal. In England, the latest Premiership deal was worth only £40 million a season. The French deal, too, includes elements like Thursday matches and Sunday 9pm kick-offs; anathema to away fans and players, but a masterstroke in attracting TV eyeballs.

“Canal+ has been the rugby channel for the past 30 years and, whenever the rights are put out to tender, they come up with the goods,” Gillham says. “Canal+ is a pay-TV channel but the current deal is good value for money, with matches from Thursday to Sunday. Canal+ pulled away from football, which was a ridiculous amount of money. It’s a really good partnership. And the TV deal is two-and-a-half times that of the Premiership.”

Bouscatel, at the heart of the two leagues’ relationship with Canal+ since he succeeded Goze in 2021, adds: “We would never agree rights with a broadcaster solely for money,” he says. “Money is important, but the vision is even more important.  

“There’s a massive difference between the French and English systems. The English have prioritised the economic and financial side, with billionaires who have invested in the big English clubs - but they don’t want competition.”

The final difference, Gillham adds, is that of financial regulation. The situation that occurred with Wasps, Worcester and London Irish all going to the wall in England is nigh-on impossible to replicate across the Channel.

“We have intense financial controls by a central auditing committee [previously DNACG; now A2R],” says Gillham. “It is ferocious, and doesn’t let you start the season without concrete proof that you have all the funding that you say you’re going to have. If we say we’re predicting ourselves to finish sixth – and budget accordingly – they will turn around and say: ‘Well, you finished 12th the past three years, so we’ll have you down as finishing 12th. So we’ll base your revenue on the past three years.’ Any sponsorship over €50k, they’ll demand to see the contract. If you can’t prove everything, then the committee won’t register the players and allow the team to start the season. Not one club in the Top 14 or ProD2 has gone to the wall in the last 10 years.”

Bouscatel adds: “Yes, we are in a purple patch, but we have built that, it hasn’t happened by chance. We have to continue to progress. A lack of progression is regression.”

If progression really is the aim, then we should all strap ourselves in for a period of French domination.

The moment of truth

All eyes now turn to the Stade de France where, on Friday night, France host New Zealand in the opening match of the 2023 Rugby World Cup, where the strides made over the past decade will truly be tested

“It has all been a virtuous cycle and circle between the clubs and the French team,” Gillham says. “Since France won the rights to host the 2023 tournament, we, as presidents, decided that the best thing for French rugby – and club rugby – would be France winning the World Cup.”

With what French rugby has built over the past 10 years, France will never have a better opportunity at being crowned champions of the world – on home soil. They could not be better prepared.