Six Nations 2021: France empty-handed after Twickenham thriller but future looks bright for Les Bleus

By Sports Desk March 13, 2021

In France, they still speak joyously of Philippe Saint-Andre's wonder try at Twickenham, that majestic blue wave that swept from one end of the great stadium to the other, resulting in a score under the posts.

What a score that was, voted many years as Twickenham's 'try of the century', Blanco to Sella to Camberabero to Saint-Andre. The punch of the air, the high fives, the hugs. The wanton joie de vivre of it all.

But it came in a losing cause, on the final day of the 1991 Five Nations, in a championship decider. Some consolation, but a consolation nonetheless.

It was Geoff Cooke's team who lifted the trophy, Will Carling the beaming captain, the champagne spraying in England's dressing room.

France were a joy to watch, those great names still resonate, and they were so close to sashaying and side-stepping their way to a glorious Grand Slam.

So close. They finished second. The first losers.

Thirty years on from that March classic and there was nothing at Twickenham on Saturday that will be remembered quite so fondly as that vintage Saint-Andre moment, but there was so nearly an outcome that could have banished many bleak French memories from trips to London. Instead, England added to that long list.

Before Maro Itoje burrowed over in the 76th minute, this was poised to be a tale of a great French win, after a captivating clash. It would have been a third win in three games in this year's championship, talk would have turned to the Grand Slam.

Delightful tries from Antoine Dupont and Damian Penaud, stemming from that great Gallic brand of running rugby, were of the sort Blanc, Sella and co would have been proud.

Suspicions of a Twickenham hex hanging over Les Bleus were about to be banished. England had won nine of their 10 previous home games against France in the Six Nations, including the last seven in a row, but their dominance was about to be halted by a French side with bulldog spirit to match their silky skills.

Fabien Galthie was on the brink of getting one over on Eddie Jones, who was facing the prospect of his Red Rose losing a third match in four.

It would have been an eighth win in their last nine Six Nations games for France.

And then along came Itoje. England were over.

Weren't they?

France clung to the hope Teddy Thomas had held Itoje up. Referee Andrew Brace felt Thomas may have done just that, but the TMO knew better.

After what felt like an age, the try was given and French hearts broke. They lost 23-20.

What an achievement it would have been for Galthie's side to cross La Manche and return to Marcoussis triumphant.

Last month's major COVID-19 outbreak in their camp was worrying from a health perspective but came in tandem with questions about conduct and protocol too, with Galthie eventually exonerated despite leaving the squad bubble to watch his son play a rugby game, and no blame apportioned.

This France side re-emerged and played with verve from the first minute - Dupont crossed after just 65 seconds following lovely work from Thomas - before Anthony Watson replied as England reined in their visitors.

France struck again in the 32nd minute, electric play from the backs in blue ending with Penaud dancing in on the right.

Owen Farrell and Matthieu Jalibert kept the score ticking along from the kicking tee, then with time running out Itoje had the determining say.

"We are playing lovely rugby," France back-rower Gregory Alldritt told ITV after the final whistle. "We are enjoying playing all together on the pitch.

"We will go back to work on Monday and have a big, big game next week and we need to prepare for this game."

France went down in this game, but they are not out. The Six Nations title could yet be heading to Paris, even if the Grand Slam will not.

Wales, now the only team left in contention for a clean sweep of wins, will aim to complete a perfect campaign in Paris next Saturday night.

Given how they took this game to England, and how close they came to a famous victory, expect Galthie's men to rise again for the challenge of the arriving Red Dragons.

This was England's day in the end, but you still got the feeling this might be a French side who in the near future won't have to settle for consolation prizes or being the first losers. That Wales game will be titanic, and revealing.

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  • Sevilla's unlikely LaLiga title challenge: The key men Sevilla's unlikely LaLiga title challenge: The key men

    When Sevilla defeated Inter in their gripping Europa League final clash last August, there was a sense of deja vu for Los Nervionenses. Not only because they were winning that trophy for the sixth time, but also that talk quickly turned to "the next step".

    Sevilla had been here before: Their back-to-back UEFA Cup successes under Juande Ramos were supposed to transform them into a new power in Spanish football, but it didn't quite happen.

    Then the Europa League three-peat with Unai Emery was supposed to elevate them, but in the 13 months that followed the hat-trick-clinching win over Liverpool, Sevilla lost two coaches (Emery and his popular successor Jorge Sampaoli), revered sporting director Monchi and some of their best players.

    Monchi returned in 2019 following a well-publicised split with Roma, his reputation having taken a significant hit. The damage has been impressively repaired, however, building a Europa League-winning squad straight away and appointing Julen Lopetegui, the man who got them back into the Champions League.

    Looking back, his hiring of Lopetegui was a bold one. Here were two men, both of whom had taken significant flak in their previous jobs, with their own points to prove.

    Regardless of Monday's shock home defeat to Athletic Bilbao, it's arguable that Sevilla have already taken "the next step" that Monchi spoke about 15 months ago. Never before in a 20-team LaLiga season had only three points separated top from fourth with five games to go, yet Sevilla were one of them.

    A draw between Atletico Madrid and Barcelona coupled with a Sevilla win over Real Madrid the following day could yet see Lopetegui's side get themselves back in the hunt for the title. Even if they don't, 2020-21 has proven Monchi still knows how to find a player and a coach.


    Thinking From the Back

    Lopetegui came in with his own ideas. Many Sevilla teams over the past 20 years have been exciting to watch with an attacking brand of football. This team are arguably not one of them.

    The first thing regular watchers of Lopetegui's Sevilla will say when summarising this team's style of play is that they're not exactly LaLiga's great entertainers. In fact, the 34 matches they've played this term have yielded just 76 goals. Only Osasuna, rock-bottom Eibar (both 72) and Getafe (66) have been party to fewer.

     

    Key to this is Sevilla's effective defence, which has conceded only 27 times. Atletico (22) and Real Madrid (24) are the two sides with better records. And looking at expected goals conceded in the table above shows that Sevilla's defence is the most miserly in LaLiga. Diego Carlos and Jules Kounde have proven a hugely successful pairing at the base of the defence for well over a year now, but while it was the Brazilian attracting more of the plaudits last term, it's his young colleague who is capturing the imagination in 2020-21.

    While he may not look it when standing next to the supreme physical specimen that is Diego Carlos, Kounde is an impressive competitor in the air. At just 5-foot-8 he has a great spring and his 93 successful aerial duels is bettered by only three other defenders this term.

    But given Sevilla generally spend more time on the ball than their opponents, it's Kounde's progressiveness in possession that helps him stand out the most. Lopetegui's flexible 4-3-3 formation often morphs into more of a 3-4-3 as Fernando drops back, and this allows Kounde to push out from the back, in what has become a key aspect of their system.

    The Frenchman makes his influence known in two ways. Firstly, he's attempted more forward passes (801) than any other outfield player in LaLiga, and only central midfielder Dani Parejo (624) can better his 623 successful ones.

    This speaks to Kounde's positive nature when in possession and his contribution to Sevilla's attack can be highlighted by our sequences framework. Of all centre-backs in the league, only Clement Lenglet (108) has been involved in more open-play sequences that have resulted in a shot than Kounde's 88. Team-mate Diego Carlos is fourth on the list with 73.

     

    This forward-thinking approach is aided by Kounde's extreme comfort on the ball. His 12 ball carries (dribbling with the ball for five metres or more) followed by a take-on is third best among centre-backs, and just three other central defenders have carried the ball further up-field across the season than him (5,532 metres).

    The confidence of Kounde – and Diego Carlos – on the ball helps explain why Sevilla's 396 pressed sequences against (instances where they have three or fewer passes and the move ends within 40m of their own goal) is the fifth-lowest in LaLiga, while they are the only team not to concede a goal as a result of a high turnover by the opposition.

     

    Sevilla are very effective at playing through a press, best demonstrated by their remarkable 37-pass goal against Valencia in the Copa del Rey in January, and Kounde is essential to that, operating as a kind of defensive playmaker in the backline.

     

    While they managed to keep hold of him despite interest from Manchester City last year, they might struggle to shoo away potential suitors this time around.

    Filling the Void

    The one area where Sevilla have perhaps been weaker in 2020-21 than 2019-20 is in midfield. Losing Ever Banega was always going to be a blow, but replacing him has proven especially difficult.

    Ivan Rakitic received something of a hero's welcome as he returned from Barcelona and, perhaps through nostalgia-tinted glasses, was billed as Banega's initial replacement with Oscar Rodriguez seen as the long-term heir.

    While Oscar has hardly featured, Rakitic has at least been a fairly regular part of the team, often filling the third midfield spot alongside the first-choice pair of Fernando and Joan Jordan.

    But despite his adulation, Rakitic's influence simply hasn't been anything like that of Banega, who offered far more across the board last season than the Croatian has at the Ramon Sanchez Pizjuan in 2020-21.

    Instead, it's been Jordan who has courted praise after kicking on from an encouraging first campaign at the club. The fact he’s now seemingly in the thoughts of Spain coach Luis Enrique speaks volumes about his progression this year.

    A dynamic midfielder, Jordan sets the tempo for Sevilla but also contributes off the ball in a role not too dissimilar to that of Koke at Atletico Madrid, who is only of only six midfielders to have completed more passes than the former Eibar man (2,161).

    His 1.97 tackles per 90 may not be remarkable, but among midfielders with at least 15 appearances, it is above the average of 1.65. Tackle numbers are always likely to be lower for players of teams who tend to see more of the ball anyway, but it proves Jordan is by no means only of use on the ball.

    That is, however, when he's at his most comfortable. Granted, he has on occasion been accused of being a sideways-pass merchant, perhaps explaining why as many as 11 central midfielders have been involved in shot-ending sequences with a better cumulative xG value than Jordan (10.4).

    However, this is likely down to how Sevilla's midfield trio all sit quite deep rather than any inherent lack of creativity. After all, Jordan has played a role in 10 shot-ending sequences where he has both created a chance and been involved in the build-up, behind only Frenkie de Jong, Luka Modric, Pedri and Toni Kroos.

    He may not be the flashiest of midfielders, but Jordan has proven himself effective and clearly has the trust of both Lopetegui and the rest of the squad.

    While replacing Banega will probably be on the agenda for Monchi again at the end of the season, Jordan's shown he could be worth a shot in a more advanced position.


    En-Nesyri Defying the Doubters

    When Sevilla shelled out roughly €20 million in January 2020 on a striker who had scored just 18 LaLiga goals in his first 77 matches, it's fair to say eyebrows were raised.

    Although only 22 at the time, it felt as though Youssef En-Nesyri had already been around for quite a while, but he'd rarely stood out as a particularly outstanding player. Hard-working, sure, but a Champions League-level striker? There were many who had their doubts.

    Rather gangly, just as likely to trip himself up as he was to beat his man, the Moroccan scored four goals in his 18 league appearances last term following his mid-season move and he failed to truly dislodge Luuk de Jong, who was widely derided until his Europa League final heroics.

    But En-Nesyri has proved a lot of people wrong this season, his haul of 17 league goals so far is the same as his total for the previous two campaigns combined.

    Even more impressive is the fact none of them have come from the penalty spot.

     

    He really has led the line in excellent fashion, and his non-penalty xG of 15.1 is the third highest in LaLiga, suggesting he is frequently getting into high-quality scoring locations. When he does get those opportunities, the Sevilla striker is putting them away. Of players to have scored at least 10 goals this season, his 24.3 per cent shot conversion rate is a record that only Marcos Llorente can better.

     

    Playing consistently alongside better players and in a system that seems to accentuate his pace and aerial strength is seemingly paying off. And it's in the air where he really comes into his own, which marries up well with Sevilla's most regular source of chances.

    Jesus Navas may not be to everyone's liking, but he's been reborn as a right-back for Lopetegui, getting himself back into the Spain squad when his career looked to be petering out upon returning from Manchester City in 2017-18.

    Navas has created 59 chances from open play this season – the highest number of any player. Only twice before in La Liga has he managed more over a full season, back in 2011-12 and 2012-13 when he played exclusively as a winger.

    Navas' bombing forward from right-back – aided by Kounde's effective covering behind – is a key facet of Lopetegui's system. He's attempted (160), and completed (52), the most open-play crosses in LaLiga. Similarly, his 32.5 per cent crossing accuracy is better than anyone else to have attempted at least 50.

    This is where En-Nesyri's aerial strength comes in. He's only behind Rafa Mir (13) for headed shots on target, while Karim Benzema (six) is the only player with more headed goals than the Sevilla striker (five).

    It remains to be seen how much more En-Nesyri has to give, and the same can be said generally for Sevilla, with their 1-0 loss to Athletic raising questions of their ability to break down stubborn opposition.

    Ahead of Sunday's trip to Madrid, our AI predictor gives them a minuscule 0.1 per cent chance of upsetting the established order and clinching their first LaLiga title since the 1940s.

    But Madrid aren't going to set themselves up to nullify Sevilla, they need the win too and will surely look to put as much pressure on their visitors as possible.

    But with capable ball players such as Kounde and Jordan in the side looking to break the lines, such a situation could be conducive to giving En-Nesyri, Lucas Ocampos and Papu Gomez space on the break.

    Sevilla couldn't, could they?

  • Barcelona v Atletico Madrid: A LaLiga title rematch seven years in the making Barcelona v Atletico Madrid: A LaLiga title rematch seven years in the making

    So we come to it: the biggest LaLiga game between Barcelona and Atletico Madrid for seven years.

    Forget the Champions League disappointments, the off-the-field murmurings about money problems and the lingering toxic cloud of the Super League, and get ready for a title showdown.

    League leaders Atletico are two points clear of Real Madrid and Barca with four games to go. If the match produces a winner, that team will have the power to decide their own fate. A draw could be enough for Atleti. A defeat for either may prove fatal to their chances.

    The last time these two teams met this late in the season with the title still on the line for both was on that famous final day in 2013-14, when Atleti went to Camp Nou knowing they would win the league if they did not lose the match. Alexis Sanchez broke the deadlock, Diego Godin equalised, and Atleti were crowned kings of Spain for the first time in 18 years.

    Nothing will be decided this season on Saturday, of course, and as any LaLiga coach will tell the media at any given opportunity, "every game is a final". But this one feels a bit different. With Madrid and fourth-place Sevilla meeting this weekend, too, Barca and Atleti must sense this is a massive chance to get a hand on the trophy.

     

    FORM IS TEMPORARY...

    For the neutral, the fact we even have a title race in early May is something to celebrate. So dominant were Atleti in the first half of the season – 16 wins, two draws and one defeat from their first 19 games – that the rest were struggling to keep up.

    In fact, according to Stats Perform AI, on January 22 Atleti had a 75.1 per cent chance of winning the title based on predicted results, while Barca's chances were just 12.4 per cent. As of April 30, however, that same predictor model gave Atleti a 38 per cent chance of winning the league, with Barca just behind on 32.6.

    While Atleti have won only half of their past 16 league games, Barca have been one of Europe's most in-form sides in 2021, winning all but three of their 19 league matches since the turn of the year – and lifting the Copa del Rey. They have collected 49 points in 2021, the most in the division and eight more than the leaders.

    History is also on their side in this fixture: the 1-0 defeat at the Wanda Metropolitano in the reverse game, when Yannick Carrasco grabbed a first-half winner, was their only league loss to Atleti in their most recent 21 meetings. They have not lost at home to them since Pepe Murcia's side ran out 3-1 winners in February 2006. Diego Simeone has drawn three and lost five of his league games in charge of Atleti at Camp Nou, making it his least favourite opposition ground as well as the scene of arguably his greatest coaching achievement.

     

    OUTPERFORMING

    This weekend's game is also the meeting of the best defence and attack in the division. Barca have scored 80 league goals, at least 19 more than anyone else, but Atleti have conceded a miserly 22. Attacks win games, defences win titles, as the adage goes.

    Barca have actually faced the fewest shots (280) of any team in LaLiga this season, 40 fewer than Atleti, who are sixth best. However, the Blaugrana have conceded 33 goals from an Expected Goals Against figure of 37.0, whereas Atleti's 22 have come from an xGA of 33.7.

    That highlights perhaps Atleti's greatest asset: based on Expected Goals on Target – an indicator of the quality of shots faced by a goalkeeper – Jan Oblak has prevented 7.1 goals this season, the highest figure in LaLiga. For teams in Europe's top-five leagues, no goalkeeper who has played more than 10 games this season has a better save percentage (79.1) than Atleti's Slovenian sensation.

     

    MESSI V SUAREZ: BEST OF ENEMIES

    Having missed the reverse fixture, this will be the first time Luis Suarez has faced Barca since his rather acrimonious departure at the end of last season. To date, the Uruguay striker – who has 166 career goals in LaLiga – has scored against all 30 of the teams he has faced in Spain's top flight.

    Suarez has been a driving force of Atleti's title charge, even though he has only managed three goals in his most recent 11 games. With 19 goals in 28 league appearances overall in 2020-21, Suarez is averaging 0.79 per 90 minutes. Only one player has a better rate: Lionel Messi (0.92), the top scorer in the league with 28 and perhaps the most in-form player since the turn of the year.

    Since January 1, Messi has scored 21 goals in 18 games, more than anyone else in Europe's top five leagues. Excluding one penalty scored, he has plundered 20 from an xG of just 11, giving him the biggest positive differential for anyone in those top five leagues in 2021. He is a man on a mission – perhaps his final mission for the club, if he doesn't agree to extend his contract.

    Prevailing wisdom would suggest one of these former team-mates will decide this contest and, in turn, the fate of the title race. Barca and Atleti have waited seven years for a battle like this – who will hold their nerve?

     

  • Wallabies to face France in three-Test series in Australia Wallabies to face France in three-Test series in Australia

    Australia will host France in a three-Test series in July, Rugby Australia (RA) announced on Friday.

    The Wallabies will welcome fifth-ranked nation France to Australia, with games staged in Sydney, Melbourne and Brisbane.

    Midweek Test rugby will return for the first time since 2012 when the Wallabies face France at the SCG on July 7 before games at AAMI Park in Melbourne (July 13) and Brisbane's Suncorp Stadium (July 17).

    Dave Rennie's Australia – who last met France in 2016 – will play a match at the SCG for the first time since 1986.

    "France are one of the most exciting teams in World Rugby; they play with passion, flair and unpredictability and have proven time and time again they are one of the global forces of our game," said RA chief executive Andy Marinos.

    "They have been quietly building their team as evidenced in their Junior World Cup performances over the past three seasons, and we are now starting to see this translate into their senior side as they look ahead to the 2023 Rugby World Cup in France."

    "We have also seen the emergence of our own new next generation of Wallaby players throughout the 2020 International season, where I have no doubt, they will continue to build positive momentum into this exciting eToro France Test Series to be held in in Sydney, Melbourne and Brisbane," he added. 

    "The return of midweek Test matches presents a unique opportunity for fans at home and at the venue, with each stadium in a central location for those attending after work.

    "As we navigate our way through the ever-changing sporting landscape that we now operate within, we do so with the continued safety of all those involved in these Test matches, along with the communities in which we play, remaining our number one priority.

    "We have enjoyed constructive and engaged discussions with [Rugby Union Players Association] RUPA on the international calendar, ensuring that player welfare and high-performance outcomes can be optimised. We will continue to work with our players to ensure our collective goal of being successful in all we do is realised."

    France suffered a 3-0 whitewash during their last tour of Australia in 2014, and French Rugby Federation (FFR) president Bernard Laporte said: "It is a great opportunity for our French team to confront an emblematic nation of the southern hemisphere that has marked the history of world rugby such as Australia.

    "We are convinced that our bleus, who feel a growing popular wave of the French at each match, will be keen to continue to perform on the international stage and demonstrate that France is among the great nations of world rugby!"

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