Fabien Galthie makes boldest gamble yet but defeat by Wales could end France reign

Fabien Galthie/Fabien Galthie makes boldest gamble yet but defeat by Wales could end France reign
The pressure is on Fabien Galthie - Getty Images/Stu Forster

“If the players give up on him, it’s over,” was the stark warning to Fabien Galthie, the France coach, from predecessor Guy Noves after Les Bleus floundered their way to a fortunate draw over Italy last month. “So, he would be mindful of protecting them.”

Noves should know. The 70-year-old was a wizard with Toulouse throughout a 2000s golden era, clinching nine French titles and four European Cups, but his two-year stint in Galthie’s chair was catastrophic. Noves managed just 18 months before becoming the first France head coach in history to be sacked, with just a 33 per cent win rate across 21 Tests.

So, if France’s sudden slump has reached the stage where even Noves feels qualified to advise – and the French public begin to listen – then Galthie should know that the pressure is well and truly on. After a heavy loss to Ireland, an unconvincing victory over Scotland and a shambolic draw with Italy, Galthie is facing his first match with Les Bleus that is must-win – for the wrong reasons. A World Cup quarter-final and a Grand Slam were crucial fixtures, of course, but losing either would not have ignited calls for Galthie’s head. A loss away to winless Wales on Sunday, however, will suddenly have the French public clamouring for the guillotine. Even after the Azzurri draw, former Toulon owner – and one-time Galthie boss – Mourad Boudjellal was suggesting that his former coach’s race was run.

Protecting players, as Noves suggested, is something that has not traditionally been a strength of Galthie’s. The 54-year-old’s reputation before his ascension to the French head-coach role had been one of a tyrant, with the only thing nurtured by his questionable man-management skills at Stade Francais, Toulon and Montpellier being the levels of stress and anxiety among his various playing groups.

Fabien Galthie pushes his players in training
Galthie is know for being a hard task-master - AFP/Anne-Christine Poujoulat

Since Galthie took the France reins in 2019, however, that reputation had seemingly dissolved, to the extent that this year, that lack of tyranny had even begun to bite him on the derrière. The erratic, enigmatic Galthie, as the public face of one of the world’s most successful domestic rugby operations, with his bond-villain glasses and a golden generation of players at his side, had suddenly become a fervent loyalist. Throughout the Six Nations, barring injury or unavailability, Galthie had kept the faith with the same group of players who had served him so well since his arrival in 2019. The head coach appeared steadfastly loyal, with players lining up to defend him and his selection methods.

This week, however, ahead of the challenge of Wales on Sunday, Galthie tested that mutual loyalty for the first time, teasing his players and keeping them on their toes – and in the dark – over team selection. The traditional training bibs, denoting those who are starting and those who will be replacements, were mixed up in training. The team did not even know who were starting, so pity the French press, whose identification of bibs had been one of their primary methods for deducing Galthie’s selection.

“It was to give the group life,” Laurent Sempere, one of Galthie’s two forwards coaches, said. “Because of that, we felt a real competitiveness in the group, which is not usually the case in a normal week [when the players know the starting XV].”

Galthie’s bib ploy was perhaps two-fold, however. Not only was it to protect the players from themselves, but it was also to protect the identities of three debutants. Against Wales, Galthie will roll the dice with his biggest gamble since taking charge. Gargantuan Toulouse second row Emmanuel Meafou will make his first France appearance alongside his clubmate, the returning Thibaud Flament; Cameron Woki is dropped entirely. Nolan Le Garrec replaces Maxime Lucu at scrum-half and, in the absence of the injured Matthieu Jalibert, full-back Thomas Ramos will play fly-half and 21-year-old Léo Barre will make his first appearance at full-back. Nicolas Depoortere, another 21-year-old and another debutant, will fill the void left by the banned Jonathan Danty at inside centre. Galthie, obdurate and loyal, is freshening up. The totemic Gregory Alldritt will return at No 8 but what Galthie would do for the reprise of his rocket, Antoine Dupont, who is tearing up the sevens circuit and who has been missed more than first expected.

Antoine Dupont playing for France Sevens
Antoine Dupont is currently playing for France Sevens - AFP/Patrick T. Fallon

At the Federation Francaise de Rugby, the party line regarding Galthie’s future, as things stand, is simple: nothing to see here. Florian Grill, the governing body’s president, has brought a new level of sanity and respectability to the role following the chaotic era of Bernard Laporte, but Grill has been left to sweep up the former’s mess. Laporte assured that last year’s World Cup would provide €50 million-70 million (£43 million-£60 million) for the body, but after he and tournament director Claude Atcher were relieved of their posts, Grill now must beware false profits. The FFR could lose €7 million from hosting that tournament due to financial mismanagement. It would cost a considerable amount for the FFR to dismiss Galthie, who signed a lucrative contract up to the 2027 World Cup as one of Laporte’s parting gifts; money that the organisation simply does not possess.

Less financially damaging than Galthie could be the removal of his backroom staff. Rubbing salt into the World Cup wound was losing three lieutenants: Laurent Labit (attack), Karim Ghezal (forwards) and Thibault Giroud (strength and conditioning). The former two departed for Stade Francais and it is no coincidence that the Parisians now sit at the summit of the Top 14. The role of Labit’s replacement as attack coach, Patrick Arlettaz of Perpignan, has been under scrutiny; so, too, the fledgling coaching career of Sempere alongside the highly respected and experienced William Servat. The prevailing sentiment in France is that, as far as Arlettaz and Sempere are concerned, there are better.

For now, from an FFR standpoint, Galthie is safe, but consecutive losses to both Wales and England – on the back of an Italian draw – would really throw the cat among the pigeons. The public pressure could be too much and, regardless of any FFR motive, Galthie could be compelled to resign. This next fortnight could be as definitive as any Grand Slam tilt or World Cup shoot-out for Galthie’s future.

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