France won two Grand Slam tournaments and four titles during their eight-year tenure from 1999 to 2007. Toulon is also thriving. There was an attempt to lure Warren Gatland to the post of France after the 2019 World Cup only so that the top 14 clubs could veto the move, with Laporte settling for two former associates of Gatland, a former wasp hooker Ibanez, and longtime ally, defense coach Shaun Edwards.
There has been a significant investment in resources and an overhaul of mentalities, a process of in-depth reform. Where there was once hostility between the club and the country, now technical staff enter clubs and work together on conditioning. Laporte had two assistants when he was in charge. Galthie has a staff of 20 in reserve. The players, under the supervision of strength and conditioning coach Thibault Giroud, are much fitter. There is better access to them.
The limitation on foreign players is more robust with a decree that club teams on match day should be 14, rising to 15 French qualified players. Young promising players are no longer fed at the Center National de Marcoussis (15 km south of Paris), often cocooned in a sterile environment for 40 weeks a year. And they have their chance. The 31-man squad that will prepare for Italy next week includes 16 uncapped players. Twenty-one team members share just 31 caps.
“The young people are staying with their clubs these days and integrating with the older players,” said Laporte. “This way they learn and become better. These boys are exposed earlier. There is a sense of structure throughout the operation.
“So much has changed in French rugby,” said former England lock Simon Shaw, who still lives near Toulon, where he saw his career and where he has a fantastic hospitality and rugby business.
“I remember a pre-season when we were based on a small island off the coast. Bernard [Laporte] did a brief presentation of the goals and objectives on a flip chart, then we stumbled upon the rosé all afternoon.
“There was a lot of machismo in club rugby that held him back. It was all about the fight, ” [the fight]. I loved it when I was playing for Wasps. It was all so brutal and conflicting. But it is outdated when it comes to international rugby.
“Anyone who expects to win a test match through brutality is in dreamland. But this kind of attitude has persisted in French club rugby longer than anywhere else. France has put her house in order. The skill levels have always been fantastic. Now they ‘put it all to good use through planning, discipline, mental toughness and all those other supposed Anglo-Saxon virtues.
Many believe Galthie’s side would have won a Grand Slam last season without the silly antics of mainstay Mohamed Haouas, sent off in the 37th minute against Scotland in March. Sunday’s return to Murrayfield will give a real indicator of the reality of the French revival. It is long overdue.
“In truth, we’ve been sleeping for 20 years,” said Alain Penaud, former French demi-fly and father of another brilliant youngster in blue, center Damian, who expects to return from an ankle injury on next month.
“The decline has gone on for too long. Even when we won, we didn’t have a real collective identity. Fabien [Galthie] put it in order. It’s not about French flair. It has always sucked. Every country has talented players. It’s about being smart and communicating together.
“This generation has a real esprit de corps about them. They love to play rugby and they love to play together. They know it’s about getting the little details right, the scrum, the lineup, the maul and all that. But they also always have a desire for the ball in their hand and self-expression. The balance is good. Above all, this French group realizes the importance of humility. If they think for a second that they’ve cracked it, they won’t thrive.
Change is in the air for France. Tomorrow will be enlightening.