Cape Town — France are the best team in the world at the moment, but don’t write off the Springboks for the 2023 Rugby World Cup just yet, says Sean Fitzpatrick.
Les Bleus have made an unbeaten start to the Six Nations, winning all three matches so far against Italy, Ireland and Scotland, and are favourites to claim a Grand Slam by knocking over Wales on March 11 and England on March 19.
That run of form comes on the back of a successful November international season as well, where they beat Argentina, Georgia and then New Zealand 40-25 in Paris.
Coach Fabien Galthie has got the mix just right between youth and experience, with scrumhalf Antoine Dupont regarded as the best rugby player in the world, while the likes of Gael Fickou, Damian Penaud and Julien Marchand also in top form.
With France hosting the next World Cup, Galthie seems to have covered all his bases to get the best out of his players, having even roped in a South African, Vlok Cilliers, as the kicking coach and famed Englishman Shaun Edwards to organise the defence.
“Quite clearly at the moment, they are the form team in world rugby, without question. And that comes from (the fact that) the Top 14 has been a good competition this year. A lot of those players performed really well for their clubs, and that’s rolled over into international rugby,” Fitzpatrick said this week ahead of the upcoming Laureus World Sports Awards, of which he is the chairman.
“They’ve got some good systems in place — Galthie is doing a pretty good job… Shaun Edwards in terms of defence. So, they’ve got some good systems in place, which traditionally they haven’t (had) — they played on natural flair. But I think they’ve got some real spark now.
“Their tight forwards are carrying the ball so well, which is such a big part of the game now — having people who can carry the ball with good impact. And then they’ve got the best nine (Dupont) in world rugby, without question — he just adds so much.
“(Flyhalf Romain) Ntamack seems to get better and better with every game, a great degree of confidence. Then you’ve got some pretty impressive midfielders, and the back-three aren’t bad either!
“Whether they are going to keep it together and handle the pressure of being favourites in their home country… We saw that in New Zealand in 2011, and it’s quite a big thing — the pressure that will come with that.
“But I just think they’ve got a bit of experience, good old heads. They’ve been very good at Under-20 level in recent years, and I am quite confident that they are the favourites going forward.”
Current world champions South Africa have been flying below the radar, having missed out on the 2020 international season due to the Covid-19 pandemic.
They have a change in head coach as well, with defence guru Jacques Nienaber taking over from Rassie Erasmus, who is now the director of rugby.
They won eight and lost five Tests last year, ending with a 27-26 defeat to England at Twickenham in November.
Asked if he thought that the Boks are contenders for the 2023 World Cup, Fitzpatrick said: “I think so. They haven’t played a lot of rugby since the World Cup, but from what I’m seeing from the players playing in the Premiership up here… A lot of the United Rugby Championship has been cancelled because of Covid.
“But going forward, they’ve got real depth. They’ve got size, and they know how to win. They’ve got a coach that knows how to win. Is Rassie still the coach? Is he the director of rugby? Is he allowed to be involved!”