A little after 11pm at a euphoric sweat-sodden Stade de France, the lights finally went out on this remarkable French side. The stadium was plunged into darkness, fireworks danced across the Paris sky and in the stands 75,000 fans danced with them. Through the pitch-black night, Antoine Dupont and his teammates peered upwards to enjoy the spectacle. The song playing over the speakers was Freed From Desire, and after 12 long years France have finally been freed from theirs.
It was brutal and it was draining and perhaps we should have expected nothing less. France’s grand slam was not just a victory for the 23 men in blue, or even for the nation they represent, a nation that has shed its thick cloak of scepticism and indifference and learned to love this team again. In many ways it was a victory for modern rugby itself, for valour and entertainment, for the idea that a team can be both art and science, discipline and invention, structure and chaos, past and future.
Yet the real gift of this side have been to escape the burden that has weighed down so many of their predecessors: the noise, the comparisons, the chain-mail of nostalgia. It was not a perfect performance by any stretch of the imagination. It was downright scruffy in parts, pock-marked by errors and missed opportunities. But through it all France never really seemed to relinquish their control or their composure. They counterattacked with purpose, trampled all over the rucks, largely succeeded in playing the game in the areas where they wanted to play it.
They slowed and quickened the game to their own liking. There was no better example of this than their crucial try just before half-time, when they pounced on an England side already going through the motions with lightning shift of pace. On ITV at half-time, England’s star-studded alumni tried to analyse the game from an English point of view, when in fact there was cherishably little to analyse. Aside from a few choice segments, England were barely allowed to play.
“To infinity and beyond,” read the headline in L’Équipe on Saturday morning. And there has been a certain surreal quality to France in this tournament, the sense of a team still unsure of their own outer limits, still young and stupid enough to believe they can do anything, beat anyone. To single out individuals is almost to defeat the entire point of this side, but aside from the lavish plaudits for Dupont and Melvyn Jaminet a special mention should be reserved for François Cros in the back row, hustling and foraging and tackling as if possessed by the spirit of Thierry Dusautoir.
Even the grizzled veterans swore that this was the finest atmosphere they had ever heard at this stadium. The Paris crowd is occasionally accused of being a fair-weather audience, but it was the fairest of weathers as France coughed up an early lead. Uini Atonio put a humongous shove on Ellis Genge and produced the first points. Gregory Alldritt, one of the players of the tournament, put down a marker by jackalling the ball out of Maro Itoje’s hands as if it were the last Christmas turkey in the Asda freezer.
The front door was locked, and despite a couple of fine aerial claims by Freddie Steward there was little joy around the back either. France started to motor, and even if amid the odd handling error there was the utter assurance that another opportunity would come sooner or later. In the stands Fabien Galthié looked serene and composed in his thick-rimmed glasses and designer headphones, like a man who had just dropped the Eurodance track of the year.
England had a good spell. But then so did Ireland, and so did Wales. Each time the French defence simply dug in, held firm, minimised the damage. The finishers rose from the bench to shut down the game: Mohamed Haouas and Romain Taofifénua both had a decisive role in Dupont’s game-clinching try, an irresistible attacking move in which England quickly found themselves choking, floundering, drowning in flesh and blue shirts and pure human desire.
And so, as the fireworks studded the night like diamonds and France reeled and revelled, it was tempting to peer into the future. The current side may feel like a perfect storm of good coaching, good players and sensible governance, but these phenomena are scarcely aligned for long. The 2010 team arguably peaked a year early, surging to the 2011 World Cup final on a wave of resentment and internal dysfunction. The 18 months between now and the next World Cup will be laden with expectation. Tough times await. This team will now have a target on their backs. But you don’t have to be a French partisan to be fascinated by where this team might go next.