France's last victory in Australia was in June, 1990, a 28-19 win at the Aussie Stadium in Sydney. The 12 matches that followed all resulted in defeat for Les Bleus; their last tour of Australia, in June, 2014, ended in bitter failure with three defeats in Brisbane (50-23), Melbourne (6-0) and Sydney (39-13).
But despite the final score, a win over Australia was getting closer and closer for Les Bleus: four of the last five games had been won with a six-point or less margin, with two draws and two two-point victories.
The match on 7 July in Brisbane, was one such fixture, won by the Wallabies 23-21 in the dying seconds of a controlled game. The French were unable to kick the ball dead and were forced to play until they were cleverly pushed to a penalty in front of their posts, allowing Noah Lolesio to kick for the win.
"When you lose a game at the last second, it's tough," said team manager Raphael Ibanez. "After that, we had only one ambition: everything for the team. We tried to get together, we talked with everyone to strengthen the links for the future. We also gave them as much time off as possible in Brisbane to breathe before a ramp-up."
The group had only one real rugby session in Brisbane before flying back to Melbourne, where they landed two days before the second of three matches. By chance, Les Bleus shared a flight with the Australians.
Melbourne's AAMI Park – a cursed place for the Wallabies?
Six days separated the two games – a real challenge for France's youngsters. The first hurdle was to digest the bitterness of the defeat, the second to decompress before putting their heads together for the next match. A battle lost in a tour that is still to be won. "We wanted to get revenge because we lost on the clock last week and, frankly, we didn't deserve that," said the flanker Cameron Woki.
The staff and the players were focused: "It's not every day that you play the same team three times in a row, especially the Australians. We hadn't seen any footage of them for over a year," explained co-coach Karim Ghezal, aware that the gameplans the French had been working on were perhaps not necessarily the right ones anymore.
It only took one training session to change small things, to improve small areas to perform in the second match. It was a big challenge but one that could be achieved.
Australia were on a good run of form after going unbeaten in their last four tests, including a 24-22 win over New Zealand in November, two draws against Argentina and the win over France.
But the second match's venue, the AAMI Park in Melbourne, is not a place that has brought them luck recently. In the three previous tests the Wallabies have played there, there has been one win (against Fiji) and two losses: against England and, more recently, a 26-21 defeat by Ireland three years ago. Like the French were attempting to, the Irish had achieved the feat of ending a long run of losses against Australia in Australia – a run lasting 39 years!
The fact that this 49th duel between the two teams (28 wins for Australia and 18 for France, with two draws) took place on 13 July, the eve of Bastille Day, and that the name of the tour was 'La Renaissance' (in French), could only bring further positive motivation to the French, who were ready to make their mark.
Discovering new talent
For this match, France coach Fabien Galthié made five changes, all in the forward pack. Only three players from the Brisbane defeat were retained, including captain Anthony Jelonch. Of the five newcomers, three were making their debut: prop Wilfrid Hounkpatin, second-row Pierre-Henri Azagogh and flanker Ibrahim Diallo. The latter two were world champions with the U20s in 2018 and the latest Frenchmen to graduate from the U20s to the test arena.
"We are waiting for him [Ibrahim Diallo] to bring his specificities. He is a committed player, a hard worker," Galthié said. Pierre-Henri Azagogh is "a player in the background who has already performed well at U20 level.
"We really feel that these players learn quickly and adapt very quickly. It's also an opportunity to discover other potential players in the battle."
Between the defeat in Brisbane and the hope of Melbourne, the coach was keen to remind everyone of the ambition of this tour: "To discover talent," said Galthié, preferring to speak of "revelation" rather than "disappointment".
"So far, everything has been positive," he said. "We've been through a pretty violent, rough isolation. We've had to change plans a few times (including moving the first game to Brisbane instead of Sydney on the eve of the match because of COVID-19 restrictions). All of this makes for a real test of character. It's a real test of character for this team and we're approaching it like that; a three-round boxing match."
In Melbourne on 13 July, two points separated the two teams again. But this time it was France who won, 23-21. The first victory over Australia in Australia for Les Bleus in 31 years. "This team of rookies, as they were called, came and competed against a great rugby nation. We are a great rugby nation and when we believe in ourselves, we are capable of anything," said prop Hounkpatin on the pitch.
"It's huge. 31 years later we manage to mark the history of the French national team. We have been very active and we have shown a lot of spirit," added Woki. "We showed that we could compete. We tried to be cool, to be focused and above all to manage the tempo."
With one match to go before the end of the tour – the third and final act will be played on 17 July – the French have already found what they were looking for: performance and talent.