France 39-22 Argentina, November 17
The brilliance of Les Bleus
November 17, 2012
Vincent Clerc grabbed a brace for France © Getty Images
While the rest of the northern hemisphere sides were floundering against their southern hemisphere opposition, France bucked the trend with a performance packed with power and prowess to dispatch the much-admired Argentineans.
Going into the match Los Pumas and Les Bleus were both riding the crest of the wave after their memorable wins over Wales and Australia respectively. The pre-match hype suggested it was set to be a close contest and, while the Pumas started well, they had no answer to the wonderfully executed French brutality.
It was a tale of two returning stars. Largely exiled under previous supremo Marc Lievremont, Philippe Saint-Andre has based his attacking plan around the mesmeric Frederic Michalak - who has started just three games for France since 2007 - while Yannick Nyanga - who shone against Australia last weekend but his last Test start prior to that also came back in 2007 - has brought real guile to the French back-row. And this is a back-row that is playing without injured IRB Player of the Year and skipper Thierry Dusautoir and the aging Julien Bonnaire - one of the standout players in this year's Heineken Cup.
But they seem to be coping admirably despite not having their talismanic captain to call upon. Louis Picamoles put in another memorable showing at the back of the scrum and alongside Kieran Read is the standout No.8 wrecking havoc on the world stage at present. The athletic Fulgence Ouedraogo complements Picamoles and Nyanga and they all combined to silence one of the players of the recent Rugby Championship - Juan Martin Fernandez Lobbe, who had free reign in the Millennium Stadium last weekend.
And in the backs, contrast this match with France's 2011 World Cup campaign where they utilised scrum-halves Morgan Parra and Dimitri Yachvili in the half-back berths. They now have real balance in Maxime Machenaud and Michalak. Parra got his run from the bench in the second-half but by then, the damage was done.
Michalak is no stranger to the Pumas having played them twice in June but it was a Test series bereft of both team's stars. His last real run out against them came back in 2007 World Cup - also the same for Nyanga - where Argentina were the stars of the show. It was a sharp contrast in Lille on Saturday evening. Michalak seems to have benefitted from his sojourns in South Africa with the Sharks and while he is largely playing at scrum-half for Toulon in the Top 14, his impressive arsenal of attacking gifts are now working in tandem alongside a similarly evolved tactical brain.
And further back in the French XV, ominously for the rest of world rugby, one of the game's most potent finishers Vincent Clerc appears to have re-found his scoring boots thanks to a brace of scores. While the French scored all of their tries in 16 first-half minutes, they kept on searching for that elusive fourth score.
It was a credit to the maturing Pumas that they held out the French and in the early stages of the match they looked to be in with a shout with Marcelo Bosch's fourth minute score a wonderful sweeping move. But following France's flurry of tries, they never got a foothold in the game. Whenever they got a sniff of a score or a potential attacking position, the French defence held firm.
France now face Samoa next weekend back at their traditional Stade de France home but, in the meantime, they have cemented their top four status in the IRB rankings and deservedly so. The call up of youngster Gael Fickou was the headline inclusion when the original squad for the autumn Tests was named, but it was two experienced operators who were the darlings of the Lille crowd on Saturday.
© ESPN Sports Media Ltd.
Tom Hamilton is the Assistant Editor of ESPNscrum.