How fickle France became formidable again
At the risk of appearing smug, I tipped France to win the Six Nations before it started.
Not with any great conviction, mind. The Tricolores didn't get their reputation for flitting between awesome and awful for nothing.
But over the last six weeks, the impression has grown that one of the great rugby countries of the world has got its act together in a big way.
So how have the notoriously flighty French suddenly become synonymous with set-piece solidity, defensive discipline and tactical mastery, to the point where their first Grand Slam since 2004 appears, if not a fait accompli, then more than probable?
I counselled the opinion of former captain Raphael Ibanez, the last Frenchman to lift the Six Nations trophy aloft in 2007, and spoke to Dave Ellis, the Yorkshireman who has been the defence coach in the France set-up for the last 10 years.
For Ibanez, a change in management philosophy, and a more consistent approach to selection, have been key components.
"For the last two years they were talking about developing players and helping them to play at international level," he notes. "To be honest I didn't really agree with that kind of philosophy. When you are playing Test matches, it is all about winning. But after two years of experimenting, they are sticking roughly with the same group of players and now they talk a lot about winning as the main goal."
France coach Marc Lievremont has won over the detractors that questioned his selection policy
Certainly head coach Marc Lievremont has reined in his 'tinkerman' tendencies this season. He used 58 players in his first year - 2008 - and 84 in all by the end of his second.
For the record, Lievremont has used 30 players in this Six Nations campaign. It would have been fewer, but Aurelien Rougerie, Benjamin Fall, Vincent Clerc, Pascal Pape, Fulgence Ouedraogo and Sylvain Marconnet have all succumbed to injury.
Of those 30, 10 will have started all five matches, with five more featuring in every 22.
These include half-a-dozen players - full-back Clement Poitrenaud, centre Yannick Jauzion, hooker William Servat, prop Nicolas Mas, lock Lionel Nallet and number eight Imanol Harinordoquy - whose best days at Test level appeared behind them.
They are now firmly re-established as the spine of the team, alongside new prop Thomas Domingo, captain Thierry Dusautoir and half-backs Morgan Parra and Francois Trinh-Duc.
"Lievremont gave a chance to so many players that it was only natural to have some doubts about which direction he was going," says Ibanez. "But now he has got the rewards by having such depth in his squad. It is pretty impressive.
"They had so many injuries at the start of the Six Nations and you barely noticed it. The players who have come into the team have the same quality and that is key to success."
While the outstanding Harinordoquy is favourite to win the Player of the Tournament award, Parra (21) and Trinh-Duc (23) have grown in stature with every outing.
Number eight Imanol Harinordoquy and scrum-half Morgan Parra have been key figures in France's success
Blooded in Lievremont's first game in charge at Murrayfield in 2008, both suffered from inconsistency and inexperience in their first season, but Trinh-Duc has started 12 out of France's last 13 Tests and Parra eight successive Six Nations games.
"They are the linch-pin - la charniere - of the team," says Ibanez. "Historically if the nine and 10 stay together for more than one game that is a miracle for the French team. But now they have the confidence of the coach and can express themselves in every game. There is still room for improvement but they both give this team a real intelligence on the tactical side."
At the heart of it is France's new petit general Parra, perhaps the most influential player of this entire Six Nations, and who might not have started if Julien Dupuy - preferred for the major Tests last summer and autumn - had not received a six-month ban for eye-gouging before Christmas.
"I can sit down and have a conversation with Morgan about the intricacies of his role, and it is like you are talking to an old stager," Ellis enthuses. "He has got his own ideas too and it is the same with Trinh-Duc. They have a lot of input into the team and to a certain extent they control what goes on, off the field as well.
"A lot of people thought they were extravagant choices but the coaches had worked with them at age-group level and they were choices for the future. It was a hell of a shock for them going from club rugby into the Test arena. But because of the courage of the coaches to make that decision, two years down the track they are playing like a couple of old pros who have been around for years."
With the emergence of other youngsters such as forwards Thomas Domingo (24), Ouedraogo (23) and Alexandre Lapandry (20), and backs like Mathieu Bastareaud (21), Maxime Mermoz (23), Fall (21), Marc Andreu (24) and Alexis Palisson (22), no wonder Ellis rates the current French crop the best he has been involved with.
Remember the likes of prop Fabien Barcella, scrum-half Dupuy, full-back Maxime Medard, centre Maxime Mermoz and number eight Louis Picamoles haven't played in this Six Nations for varying reasons, but should all be in the mix for World Cup places.
The input of Ellis to France's success cannot be under-estimated. Tricolores teams are not noted for their defensive resolve, but this side - 20 minutes against Wales apart - has comfortably dealt with what their four opponents to date have thrown at them.
Last year France were the second highest try-scorers with 14 behind England (16), but conceded 11, with only Italy shipping more.
This year the French have been equally potent (13 tries to date, with one game left), but conceded just five, the joint lowest alongside Ireland.
Ellis gives an intriguing insight into the tactics they have employed in each game. "Against Scotland we had to stop them off-loading and getting width on the ball so we blitzed up...we couldn't afford to do that against Ireland because of the quality of O'Driscoll and the way they step back inside, so we played a lot more of a flat-line defence...we knew if we were patient Wales would play themselves into a hole..."
Instead of employing a simple 'blitz' or 'drift' defence, Ellis says his charges can now adapt their formation and tactics according to the opposition and the state of the game.
"The players are quite comfortable with playing what they see in front of them in attack," he explains. "But we have turned the key around and said 'defend what you see in front of you as well. Let's have a proactive defence instead of a reactive one'.
"It is difficult to do at club level where you tend to have just one system. But why do you need just one if the players are clever enough to adapt? It is something I have wanted to try for a while at international level.
"We played about with it a bit last year and a few had their doubts. But fortunately they have picked it up and now we are seeing the benefits. The squad hasn't changed a great deal over the five games, so that gives you a lot more time to work on things."
But is not all about defence, scrummaging power and a solid, if not infallible, line-out.
"Another important change is that they have really liberated the players in their attacking ambition," Ibanez notes. "For the last two years the game they were playing was not totally realistic, but this year they have found their equilibrium, the right balance between the attacking side and the fundamentals of the game. They have shown pragmatism."
Pragmatism? The French? Whatever next? Humility, apparently.
Lest anyone gets the impression France consider a ninth Grand Chelem (and third of the Six Nations era) a formality, Ellis is quick to recall the events of 14 March 2009, a date he believes will be looked upon as a defining one for this team.
France were humiliated 34-10 at Twickenham , nine days after beating defending champions Wales in Paris to much acclaim.
"There were some seasoned players that haven't played since, and some of the younger players got taught a lesson that day," Ellis notes. "It is a bit like an unsmoked cigarette that you leave behind your ear and remember it when you need it. That is what we have done with that game."
The clear inference is that France have moved on from that horror show in south-west London.
A Gallic Grand Slam in the Stade de France should be the next logical step for a side that won in New Zealand last summer and beat the Springboks at home in the autumn.
"The atmosphere is quite calm," Ellis adds. "We have just knocked off one game at a time. Winning our third game in a row (against Wales in Cardiff) was quite a big one as we hadn't done that before with this group, but it was just another stepping stone.
"This is just not overnight success. It has been coming for a while."