“The most beautiful feeling” is how captain Arthur Coville describes leading France to World Rugby U20 Championship glory on home soil in 2018.
France played some scintillating rugby, defeating former winners South Africa (46-29), New Zealand (16-7) and then England (33-25), in the sold-out final in Béziers, to become only the fourth nation to lift the distinctive trophy.
“It’s the best memory of my career, the most beautiful feeling. We could not dream for better,” the Stade Français scrum-half told World Rugby.
“After the final, of course, we were on a small cloud, but it didn't hit us until later. It was in the following weeks that one realised how big a deal it was. There was a lot of media coverage and it changed us. Everyone was watching us.”
Dealing with pressure
As U20 Six Nations champions and with a talented and experienced squad that had been labelled “the golden generation” set to enjoy the backing of the partisan home crowds in Perpignan, Béziers and Narbonne, expectations were high on the eve of the tournament.
Handling that external pressure would be key to France reaching their first final and, at 17-5 down at half-time in the opening match against Ireland, it appeared as though Les Bleuets had caught a bad case of stage fright.
However, Coville insists Les Bleuets’ management did a brilliant job in keeping the players calm and focused.
“During the World Championship, we managed it well because (head coach) Seb Piqueronies did a good job with all the staff. He told us that we shouldn’t have more pressure because when we looked at previous years, France had never had a podium finish. We were not the team expected to be up there, so if we managed to make the podium, it was extraordinary ... it was only a bonus. There was no pressure.”
A brilliant run of 21 unanswered points in a 13-minute spell at the start of the second half in that tense opener against Ireland, in which Coville scored, settled the nerves of the Stade Aime Giral crowd and, despite suffering a late scare, France came through, just about unscathed, 26-24.
And while the 24-12 win over Georgia in their second match did not have the hallmark of champions, France showed their true colours when it mattered most – the final pool match against South Africa.
Giving it everything
“After the first two matches didn’t go as smoothly as we’d have liked, where we did not manage to find the same groove that we had in the Six Nations, we ended up on a beach, in Leucate, and we had a big talk,” revealed Coville.
“We said that we had a ‘quarter-final’ to play against South Africa and that, given the level of play we were putting out, if we continued like that, we would go nowhere. We decided to give everything, and we left it all on the field. We trusted in ourselves, and we managed to win against South Africa.”
Having shown only glimpses of what they were capable of in the first two matches, everything suddenly clicked, and the Junior Springboks were blown away in one of the best halves of attacking rugby seen at this level.
A brace of tries from Player of the Tournament Jordan Joseph, one from top point scorer Louis Carbonel and further scores from Pierre Louis Barassi and Romain Ntamack helped to take France into a 36-7 half-time lead.
While South Africa mounted a second-half fightback, there was no way back from such a big deficit.
“We dominated them in the first 10 minutes; we were faster than them and gave more than them,” recalled Coville.
“It was then that we rediscovered the team that we had in the Six Nations tournament. After the match against South Africa, we knew that we had it in the bag.”
Given France had to beat New Zealand in the semi-finals and then England in the final that may have seemed like a bold statement to make, but France had found their rhythm.
“We were not afraid to try things and the coaches were open to this. We tried to stay on our feet and keep the ball alive and have fun.”
With 10 of the group having played in Georgia the year before, Coville included, previous experience of the U20 Championship counted for a lot, according to their captain.
“We finished fourth with a very good team in Georgia. We were a little disappointed with that. For many of us, we knew what a World Cup was going to be like. That knowledge served us well.”
Since the tournament's end, Coville has had an up and down time, spending four months on the sidelines with a knee injury. But he has taken great delight in seeing two of his team-mates, prop Demba Bamba and Ntamack, make their test debuts for France.
“Oh yes, it's a source of pride for our whole team for us to see players from our team move to the next level and directly play with the senior XV. It shows that the under-20s was a talented group and I hope there will be many others thereafter.”