Rarely has the task facing France U20 been so daunting. The three-time world champions arrive in South Africa in pursuit of a record-equalling fourth consecutive title, but everyone within Les Bleuets' camp knows the challenge will be far from easy.

The squad headache

The first difficulty for coach Sébastien Calvet was selecting his squad. “We are picking up players one by one,” he admitted on the eve of their departure on 22 June, a week before their first match against Spain in Cape Town. The main reason for this was the Top 14 final and the need to assemble a squad for France's tour of Argentina.

In the end, Fabien Galthié chose four world champions to go with the senior team: Posolo Tuilagi, Théo Attissogbe, Léon Darricarrère and Simeli Daunivucu.

Nathan Bollengier and Hugo Reus have both been recalled to the U20 squad following Stade Rochelais' defeat against Stade Toulousain in Top 14 semi-final. Mathis Castro-Ferreira, who was retained by Toulouse to help them prepare for the Top 14 final against Union Bordeaux-Bègles on Friday, 28 June, is expected to join the squad the following day.

“We're monitoring their situation and also looking at several minor injuries. We'll have to start with a fairly large group, but smaller groups will be joining us gradually, so we're taking it one day at a time,” said Sébastien Calvet.

Better prepared opponents

The second challenge is the quality of the opposition France will face in the pool stage, particularly New Zealand, who are fresh from winning the U20 Rugby Championship title on Australia's Sunshine Coast in early May.

“They lacked that collective experience, as we've always said,” remarked Calvet, reflecting on the 2023 edition, when France defeated New Zealand 35-14 in the pool stage, leading to the once-dominant team in black finishing eighth, behind Georgia.

“Yes, we beat them, but they didn't prepare like we did,” he adds. “This time it's not the same. Not only have they prepared in the same way, but they're out for revenge and the coach, Jono Gibbes (former La Rochelle and ASM Clermont coach who was recently approached to coach LOU Rugby) knows French rugby well. We'll fight, we're confident, but we know it won't be the same team we face in the second game.”

France face New Zealand in the second round of fixtures on 4 July. But first up are the tournament debutants, Spain.

“We managed to obtain access to some video databases. They're a nation that plays,” remarked Calvet about Spain, anticipating an intriguing start to the U20 Championship. 

“We need to excel in the fundamentals, dominate in set-pieces, and be robust in the contact phases to gain the upper hand against this team. Any lapse in fundamental skills could play into their dynamic style, potentially causing disruptions. We must show them utmost respect and maintain our strength in the basics.”

The outcome of the third match against Wales on 9 July will likely decide France's fate in the competition. Their previous encounter was at Cardiff Arms Park in the U20 Six Nations on 7 March, where France emerged victorious with a score of 45-12.

Revisiting the scene for former glories

The third and final challenge for this new group will be to revisit the site of past triumphs. Despite the squad's changes – only seven players have returned – the legend of Les Bleuets in South Africa has already been firmly established following their win there last year. 

“I think returning is a positive thing. If you're traumatised or have negative memories, it must be tougher. We've had some truly great experiences. However, we also need to be cautious,” Sébastien Calvet agrees.

“We know that certain players will relive this adventure, providing landmarks and helping new players integrate faster. These foundations will accelerate our path towards achieving high performance,” Calvet explains.

Léo Carbonneau, Mathis Ferté, Thomas Duchêne, Lino Julien, Brent Liufau, Barnabé Massa and Hugo Reus will be the 'big brothers' for what will be their final year with the U20s.

Alongside Lenni Nouchi (captain in 2023), Esteban Capilla, and Andy Timo (potential Olympians for France Sevens at the Paris 2024 Olympics), the 2023 class includes Paul Costes, Léon Darricarrère, Nicolas Depoortere, Léo Drouet, Marko Gazzotti, Baptiste Jauneau, Oscar Jegou, and Noah Zinzen. Most of them are expected to become key players for their clubs and the French national team in the coming years.

A fond farewell?

For coach Sébastien Calvet, this adventure will also mark his final chapter. The day after the final on 19 July, regardless of the outcome, he will embark on a new career with SU Agen, the club he has a lifetime association with.

“I'm not leaving by default, but by real choice. I've always been a manager-coach and, in a very selfish way, what I enjoy most is being on the field with the players and staff,” he told World Rugby.

“During the World Championship, we're on the pitch every day for four weeks, playing one match after another. And after that fabulous epic journey, you don't get back on the pitch for six months. It was an eye-opener for me to realise that, at 48, I'm not too old to enjoy this selfish pleasure if people give me the chance.

“I had planned to stay involved until 2027, but the opportunity with Agen came up in January. Everything aligned to make me realise that if I were to return someday, it would be foolish not to do it now. It wasn't part of the original plan,” he says.

He speaks knowing that without the French Rugby Federation (FFR), he would not have had so many great moments. His career has always oscillated between club and national commitments.

“I went to Montauban to train and then returned. I went to the Agen training centre and came back. Thanks to the understanding of the Federation and the successive managers, I’ve always been able to develop my skills in the 'private' world. The Federation has always viewed this as added value and has consistently allowed me to return.

“And who knows? You never know what tomorrow will bring. I've embarked on this adventure, and I intend to stick with it for a while. Who knows, maybe I'll return to the Federation for a fourth time,” he smiles, admitting that he will certainly miss the job.

Don't forget you can watch all the action from the World Rugby U20 Championship 2024 live and exclusive on RPTV. Sign up here>>