PARIS (Reuters) - France may have only finished fourth in the Six Nations but under new coach Jacques Brunel, Les Blues appeared to have laid the foundations of a brighter future with Mathieu Bastareaud emerging as a team leader a year ahead of the World Cup.
France opened with losses to Ireland (15-13) and Scotland (32-26) and ended their campaign with a frustrating 14-13 loss to Wales, but in between, they enjoyed a routine win over Italy (34-17) and an impressive 22-16 triumph against England.
Brunel, who took over after Guy Noves led France to third place in last year’s Six Nations but stumbled through a mediocre November series, soon stamped his authority on the squad and gave it a solid backbone.
The former Perpignan and Italy coach left out several players for going on a night out in Edinburgh following the defeat against Scotland, and some of those who were called up as replacements seized the opportunity with both hands.
Wing Remy Grosso, in for Teddy Thomas, put up convincing displays against England and Wales as the team showed creativity and, more importantly, impressive defensive skills.
“This squad has found a soul,” said hooker Andrien Pelissie, who replaced injured captain Guilhem Guirado for the Wales game.
“Everybody was saying it would be hell for us against Ireland, England and Scotland, and every time we were close.”
While Noves started his France spell without centre Mathieu Bastareaud, saying he did not fit his profile, Brunel is banking on the burly centre to lead Les Bleus.
“He is one of the key players in this team,” said Brunel, who gave the Toulon player the captain’s armband against Wales in the absence of Guirado.
“We need several leaders. We have Guilhem but he was a bit on his own when we did not have results and maybe he wore himself out. We need Mathieu here.”
Bastareaud missed the first two games after he was suspended for homophobic comments during a Champions Cup game, and his return sparked a marked improvement as he stole several balls in the ruck to help France gain more possession.
“We have nothing to be ashamed of,” he said. “We have shown that we have a lot of character in these last three games.”
There is room for improvement, however.
Maxime Machenaud, who only missed two kicks during the championship, appears to be making the scrumhalf his own but France still need a consistent flyhalf.
Francois Trinh-Duc showed a glimpse of his class with a fine early drop goal against Wales on Saturday but also reminded everyone that he was capable of blowing up during games.
In Cardiff, Trinh-Duc missed a straightforward penalty that would have given Les Bleus victory over Wales and second place in the tournament, and also wasted a golden opportunity with a poor forward pass.
As much as France have improved during the tournament, the flyhalf puzzle remains unsolved.
Reporting by Julien Pretot; Editing by John O'Brien