Having played for France in four Rugby World Cups, and lost a final, Fabien Galthié is now focused on coaching the home nation to its maiden Webb Ellis Cup. In his three years at the helm, the former scrum-half and captain has turned Les Bleus into a ruthless winning machine, finding a worthy successor in skipper Antoine Dupont.
Since Galthié took over as head coach in 2020, the mercurial French have cast aside their reputation for inconsistency, amassing an impressive tally of 33 wins out of 41 games, including a Six Nations Grand Slam in 2022.
Les Bleus are widely expected to make it 34 wins when they take on Namibia at Marseille’s Vélodrome stadium on Thursday in their third pool game at the World Cup. But the manner of their victory will be closely scrutinised a week after their laborious win over Uruguay prompted boos and whistles from the home crowd in Lille.
Galthié, whose squad against Uruguay featured only three players from the dazzling team that saw off New Zealand in the tournament’s curtain raiser, summoned Charles Darwin to explain France’s two-faced performance.
“Our method is based on adaptability,” Les Bleus’ head coach mused during a press conference this week. “It’s a bit like Darwin’s theory: it’s not the strongest of the species that survives, nor the most intelligent. It is the one that is most adaptable to change.”
A fierce competitor
Throughout his career as player and coach, Galthié has earned a reputation as both a brilliant strategist and a fierce, iron-willed competitor – as unbreakable as the plastic-frame glasses with thick lenses that have become his trademark accessory.
A perfectionist, the French coach has succeeded in maximising his players’ strengths and stamping out their flaws, his impressive run of wins with Les Bleus vindicating a style critics have sometimes described as abrasive.
Both on and off the pitch, Galthié has a track record of snapping players back into line. His former teammate Mathieu Blin recalls frequent run-ins with the scrum-half when they started training together in 2001 at Stade Français, the Paris outfit Galthié joined in 2001 after 15 years of loyal service with small-town club Colomiers.
“We would get into spats on the pitch because of the way he spoke to me,” said Blin. “But he actually liked it when people answered back. It was his way of testing his teammates.”
Galthié and Blin soon found their feet at the Paris club, playing two seasons together until Galthié finally won his maiden French title in June 2003 – the year he put an end to his career as a player. True to form, the Stade Français scrum-half led the way in the final match, scoring the first try in their 32-18 victory over arch-rivals Stade Toulousain.
“As a player Galthié was already very interested in coaching,” Blin recalled. “He already had a firm grip on the team during Nick Mallett’s tenure as coach.”
Barely a year after calling time on his playing career, Galthié took over from Mallett as head coach at Stade Français, which he led to another French title in 2007. It would be his last silverware at club level, though he reached another final in 2011, this time with Montpellier.
Galthié had more success on the international stage, though his longevity as a France player conceals a rollercoaster ride with Les Bleus.
The former scrum-half won 64 caps for France, winning the Five Nations twice and completing a Six Nations Grand Slam in 2002 – a feat that earned him the title of World Player of the Year. He also played a World Cup final in 1999, falling short against the Wallabies after he masterminded France’s famous semi-final defeat of the All Blacks at Twickenham.
Galthié had watched the tournament’s pool stage from home – until an injury to France’s first-choice scrum-half Pierre Mignoni earned him a late call. It was a case of déjà vu for the Colomiers star, who was in the midst of a brief stay at a South African club four years earlier when he received an 11th-hour call to replace another injured scrum-half ahead of France’s World Cup semi-final against the Springboks in Durban.
At 22, Galthié had already been a fixture of Les Bleus’ 1991 World Cup campaign, which ended in a bad-tempered quarter-final defeat to England. Twelve years later, he would lose against the same opponents in his fourth shot at World Cup glory, bowing out with a semi-final defeat in his last match as a player.
Galthié opted out of the third-place playoff at the 2003 World Cup, flying home to attend a relative’s funeral instead. He explained his decision in an interview with Le Monde as he departed Australia. “This match is already about the future of French rugby,” he said. “And clearly, I am not a part of that future.”
Dupont picks up the baton
Two decades on, Galthié is the undisputed present and future of French rugby, albeit this time in the coach’s seat. He has found a worthy on-field successor in the brilliant scrum-half Antoine Dupont, who was named World Player of the Year in 2021, two decades after France’s head coach.
With his perfect balance of craft and force, Dupont has come to define France under Galthié: a winning machine that combines the Gallic flair of old with a tighter, more disciplined style. Since Galthié picked him to captain France over the more experienced Charles Ollivon, he has led by example, inspiring the team’s line-breaking attacks even as he bolsters its defence with ferocious tackles.
Read more‘Dynamite’ Dupont leads France’s quest for Rugby World Cup glory
“He’s a leader in the game. He touches the ball every three to six seconds with big decisions to make,” Galthié said of his skipper after first handing him the captain’s armband. “He can lead a group of men; he is a team leader.”
Both men grew up in rural surroundings in French rugby’s southwestern heartland and have maintained close ties with their native regions, championing the role of the grassroots game in propelling France to the pinnacle of the sport.
In the run-up to the World Cup, Galthié picked his childhood village of Montgesty to hold a press conference laying out Les Bleus’ strategy. The message was clear: winning France’s maiden Webb Ellis Cup must be a national endeavour mustering every available resource.
Heeding Galthé’s call, the French Rugby Federation and the country’s top clubs agreed to give the head coach an expanded staff, a larger pool of players and, crucially, more time to practise with them throughout the season. Having overseen every detail of the hosts’ World Cup preparations, France’s great perfectionist now has his best chance yet of clinching that elusive title.