Former England and Scotland head coach Andy Robinson previews the 2020 Six Nations exclusively with Sporting Life, tipping a new French attitude to catch the eye.
Neutral rugby fans hankering for a return to the French cavalier days of old will be disappointed according to England's World Cup and Six Nations winning assistant coach Andy Robinson, who believes we’ll see a renaissance built around dogged defence and discipline at this year’s Six Nations Championship.
The selection of 19 uncapped players in Fabien Galthie’s squad, which includes seven under-20 world champions, has given rise to the hope that Les Bleus will adopt a ‘joie, joie’ approach rarely seen since the likes of Emile Ntamack, Christophe Dominic and Philippe Bernat-Salles ran amok in the late 90s.
New head coach Galthie was very much part of that free-flowing era but the scrum-half was also a favourite of Bernard Laporte, the former head coach and current French Federation of Rugby president, whose transformative spell in charge did much to debunk the myth that France could be brilliant one minute and flaky the next.
Within two years of taking over, Laporte, with Galthie as his captain, had led France to the 2002 Grand Slam.
While such heights are likely to prove beyond the reach of 50-year-old Galthie in his first Championship as head coach, Robinson believes France will be rejuvenated under Jacques Brunel’s successor, especially with Shaun Edwards as his whip-cracking lieutenant.
“I think France will be really strong; I think we’ll see a different France form the one we’ve seen in the last few years,” Robinson said.
“They are building up for a World Cup in 2023, and there’s a real emphasis, through Bernard Laporte, on the way they’re going to play.
To win the Six Nations odds
- England 10/11 (Grand Slam winners 6/4)
- Ireland 7/2 (8/1)
- Wales 5/1 (12/1)
- France 11/2 (Grand Slam winners 14/1)
- Scotland 25/1 (Grand Slam winners 66/1)
- Italy 1000/1 (Grand Slam winners 1000/1)
- No Grand Slam winner evens
- Full Six Nations market here
Odds via Sky Bet and correct of 1400 GMT on 25/1/20
“If you think about Bernard and the impact he had on the French team when he coached it, he changed the whole mindset: they became very disciplined and very defence orientated. So they’ll be disciplined in the way that they play, and give very few penalties away.
“Galthie was captain under Laporte and is now the coach, and with Edwards coming in, I think you’re going to see a much better disciplined French side. Whether he speaks French or not, (Edwards) will get his message across.”
Former Wales defence coach Edwards will certainly not tolerate moments of madness like Sebastien Vahaamahina’s swinging elbow into the face of flanker Aaron Wainwright which earned the lock a red card and cost France, Robinson believes, a genuine chance of lifting the World Cup.
“The flair is still there - it’s inbuilt in the French, they are always going to have that, they just won’t do stupid things like what (Sebastien) Vahaamahina did that cost them their place in the semi-finals at the World Cup.
“With all due respect to Wales, it was always going to be tough for them to beat South Africa, but France could have easily beaten them.”
No title procession for England
The temperament of the French team has historically been poor when up against old foes England, their opponents on the opening weekend.
Robinson says England are favourites to win the title on merit but as well as an improved display from France, he expects Ireland to show a bit of bounce back from yet another disappointing World Cup quarter-final exit under new head coach Andy Farrell.
“When you look at the change of management that has happened in all the other countries apart from Scotland, and the team England have selected, you’d expect them to perform well and win the Championship. But how many times have people said that England go in as favourites, and they are knocked off their pedestal?
“To win a Grand Slam this year will be very tough, it’ll take a really special side.”
Farrell steps up from his position as assistant coach under Joe Schmidt to be Ireland’s number one, a move Robinson made when he took over from Sir Clive Woodward as England boss in 2004.
Meanwhile, Wayne Pivac has the unenviable job of replacing Warren Gatland with Grand Slam champions Wales and Franco Smith takes charge of Italy following Conor O’Shea’s departure.
“Andy Farrell is a just a great man, anyone who knows him or has been coached by him or coached with him, understands how he inspires his teams to perform,” said Robinson, who made a return to international rugby in November as head coach of Romania.
“If they can get to the levels of Leinster, who’ve been phenomenal with the speed they play at, and the Irish pack can play, they could cause sides quite a lot of damage.”
England, though, remain the team to beat, Robinson insists, unless opponents manage to slow them down at the ruck.
“As always, my heart and head is with England, because the way they played at the World Cup was outstanding,” praised Robinson.
“With quick ball, England are now the best side in the world. I’d have never imagined saying that back in the 90s!
“I think a lot of teams will try and slow England’s ball down, and it’ll be fascinating to see how they deal with that.”