Having narrowly missed out on this year’s U20 Six Nations title to Ireland, there was much anticipation in French rugby to see if the current crop of youngsters could match the classes of 2018 and 2019 and become U20 world champions.

As they set out to follow in the footsteps of the likes of Romain Ntamack and Louis Carbonel, those past glories could have weighed heavily on the shoulders of Sébastien Calvet’s charges but they more than lived up to the challenge and, if anything, outshone their predecessors with some stunning counter-attacking rugby.

So impressive and clinical were France, they scored more tries in the 2023 tournament (36) than in 2018 and 2019 combined and only fell five short of New Zealand’s all-time record of 41, set in 2017.

And in defeating Ireland 50-14 in the final, Les Bleuets took their overall points tally to 255 – another new team record with 202 in 2009 their previous best for a single U20 Championship. It was a fine way for them to put their 33-31 loss to Ireland back in February to bed.

For head coach Calvet, the four months since the U20 Six Nations has been all about whittling down his squad to 30 players – no easy task given the wealth of resources at his disposal.

“We built a team, which wasn't easy. We used a lot of players in the Six Nations, and because our best players were playing for their professional clubs, we tried out 47 players during the Six Nations and only 30 for the U20 Championship,” he said.

“The choices were difficult because we have a lot of good players in France. And then, with those 30 players, we worked hard, step by step, until we won this world championship. Our players are fantastic and I'm very happy for them.”

Turning point

France ran in 11 tries as they kicked off their campaign in style with a 75-12 win over Japan that saw them fall just short of their record score and biggest-ever win in U20 Championship history (78-12 v Italy in 2018).

Nicolas Depoortère and Marko Gazzotti bagged a brace of tries apiece with Hugo Reus, Noa Zinzen, Esteban Capilla, Mathis Ferté, Léo Carbonneau, Brent Liufau and Andy Timo accounting for the rest of their tries. Reus also produced a flawless kicking display, something he would repeat on his way to becoming the tournament’s top points-scorer, with six kicks out of six.

While the Japan win was all about clinical attack, Les Bleuets showed they knew more than one way to win a match in defeating New Zealand 35-14. Having missed the first game, 149kg second-row Posolo Tuilagi made a sizeable impression in a huge forward effort by scoring two tries.

“The real turning point for me was the huge victory against the Baby Blacks because, contrary to what you might think, given the scoreline, it was a very tough match in which the players put in a great performance. This enabled us to rotate for the Wales match, where the whole group and the other players responded very well to achieve a good victory,” said Calvet.

“We were then able to follow up with the first-choice players against England, who really put in a great performance. We were fresher than our opponents. I think the players felt it. So, we had a roadmap that went pretty well, and we know very well that in these marathons, a grain of sand can jam the whole mechanism.”

Not even Barnabé Massa’s 14th-minute red card, upgraded from yellow by the TMO bunker, could stop France in their Pool A decider against Wales. At one point, France went down to 13 men when Brent Liufau was sin-binned but they still came through to win, 43-19, thanks to a brace of tries from Depoortère and one apiece from Clément Mondinat, Léo Carbonneau, and Lino Julien.

Digging deep

And that resilience was again needed as they recovered from a horror start against England, coming back from 17-0 down to win 52-31. It was the first time France had scored a half-century of points against England in a U20 international.

France’s discipline had been the only thing to let them down in the run to the semi-final but, against England, they managed to keep all 15 players on the field while also ruthlessly punishing their opponents when Finn Carnduff was sin-binned in the 47th minute. Captain Lenni Nouchi and that man Gazzotti again, scored quickfire tries that put Les Bleuets into a lead they never relinquished.

“We managed to discipline ourselves in the most important matches, and were able to put things right in the final stages,” said Nouchi.

“After the yellow card at the start of the second half, we scored two tries against England. We took advantage of others' mistakes, and that put us ahead, and we took advantage of that. So we're very happy about that.”

With Nouchi and Gazzotti playing test-level rugby and Oscar Jegou also rampant in the back-row, Les Bleuets could even afford to leave the equally outstanding Andy Timo on the bench or out of the matchday 23 altogether, such was their strength in depth.

Tuilagi’s huge frame helped to make France’s rolling maul nigh on unstoppable and they were also excellent in the set-piece, with a scrum and lineout operating at 90 per cent-plus efficiency.

With such a solid platform upfront, livewire scrum-half Baptiste Jauneau had a whale of a time and was able to set the tempo of games. Always a threat in his own right, Jauneau kept defences honest with his sniping runs as well as showing great understanding and athleticism to link up in broken field play.

This is when Les Bleuets really came into their own, as was witnessed in 10 breathtaking minutes at the end of the final that saw Les Bleuets sign off in style. Ireland had been well in the match at half-time, only trailing 17-14 and having led twice, but France were able to go up another gear and rattled off 33 unanswered points after the break, with 21 coming in that grandstand finish.

“In a final like this, the energy is there because there's the whole team and you have to give it your all, play your guts out for the team. The whole team did what I did, and that's why we won,” said Gazzotti, who was named Player of the Tournament shortly after the final whistle.

“I gave it my all tonight. Everyone gave their all tonight and that’s why we’re where we are today. That’s what makes me love playing with this team, that nobody gives up and we always go all the way. I think this team has a huge spirit, and that's why we're able to win by such large margins.”

A perfect year?

Les Bleuets’ triumph in Cape Town was another huge positive for French rugby at a time when the sport is already booming there, at all levels.

"We're very proud because there's great momentum – from rugby fans in France, from the Federation, from the senior team, from Fabien Galthié and his staff, from the former U20 world champions,” said Calvet.

“We're very happy because I think the players played very well. But above all, it's the spirit they showed throughout the competition: humility, respect for our opponents, fighting spirit, playing for each other. We're very happy about that. We know that many people in France are proud of us, and we're very proud, too.”

While Rugby World Cup 2023 will be one tournament too soon for the likes of Gazzotti, the all-action number eight is destined to play on the game’s greatest stage. In the meantime, he hopes to see France become double world champions.

“We told ourselves right from the start that it was ours and that we were going to go all the way. And we did. After that, if it can inspire the big boys to win their own World Cup, that would be perfect for French rugby,” he said.