How Do France Fill the Void of Danty?
France lost their status as World Cup favourites after Romain Ntamack was sidelined due to his ACL injury. However, losing Jonathan Danty is arguably more damaging to their hopes in the tournament.
Danty has emerged as one of the premier players in world rugby in the last 18 months. He was present in French squads of old, ridiculed for their unpredictability and lack of consistency. The old adage ‘which French side will turn up today?’ became synonymous with Les Blues. In recent years, they have transformed. They have ditched the loose, cavalier tactics, and since combined the raw talent of their squad’s personnel with the military precision of a Galthie-Edwards’ game plan.
Danty has transformed, too. Before he was deployed in a far too one-dimensional way, using his obvious size advantage as a battering ram and nothing more. The French management can’t be blamed too much for this. At 110kg he isn’t exactly inconspicuous in midfield so the direct route is the obvious route to go down with Danty. Under the new regime though, the La Rochelle 12 has been given the chance to showcase his wider range of talents.
His size is undeniable. And just because he is so well-rounded in all other departments does not mean to say that he is not lethal when he is used solely as a battering ram. Ignoring all his other qualities, his hard, straight running is a potent weapon and lays the ideal attacking foundation for the generational talent that is studded across France’s backline to flourish to its full potential. For instance, his ability to be a route one centre was showcased in his try during this summers’ World Cup warm up game against Australia. There was no real deception and gave off an element of ‘just chuck it to Danty’ and it worked excellently.
That said, reducing him down to just a ball carrier does a disservice to his all-round game. His work at the breakdown is exemplary and a valuable skill that no other back in world rugby is close to rivalling. Possibly his La Rochelle teammate, Levani Botia who is a freak talent and backrow/centre hybrid. But excluding him, the list of backs who can match Danty’s jackaling is not long at all. His jackaling is even more effective considering a lot of Danty’s work in the contact area comes in open space and away from the support of opposition forwards to clear out for the next phase. France have a player with openside-esque qualities in the open field away from support at the ruck. It is definitely something opposition teams need to think about when you have someone as dangerous as most sevens at the breakdown defending in the wide channels. In tight test matches, teams rely on momentum shifting moments to tip balance in their favour and breakdown penalties from Danty do just that.
Perhaps the biggest indicator of how much France will miss Danty is when you observe how France operate when he is absent from the 23. He missed the first three matches of this years’ Six Nations, a narrow win over Italy where they were miles off the pace, a loss in Dublin to Ireland, followed by an 11 point win over Scotland. Credit must go to Ireland for the way they stifled the French attack, but Danty’s brutal carrying and gain line dominance would have been instrumental in not allowing Ireland to impose themselves defensively in such a comprehensive way. His presence certainly would have given them some much needed muscle in their indifferent performance in Rome.
France have an embarrassment of riches in nearly every position. Top class stars arrive as if they are on a conveyor belt. Pierre Bielle-Biarrey who only debuted in the summer was preferred to Ethan Dumortier. Dumortier shone in the Six Nations and the decision to go with Bielle-Biarrey shows the quality required to fit in this squad. The quality however, does not come in spade loads at inside centre in the same way it does for virtually every other position. Arthur Vincent is in the running but his last extended run in a French jersey came in 2021. Yoram Moefana looks most likely to regain his spot in the number 12 jersey but when he was deployed in this years’ Six Nations, their attack looked uncharacteristically blunt at times. Especially in comparison to a fully-loaded France firing on all cylinders. It is possibly unfair to place blame on France’s lack of penetration in attack solely on Moefana. He is a lovely player in his own right but potentially more suited to a back three role. It is undeniable how much more dangerous and lethal France looked in week four when France handed England a record breaking 50-point hammering at Twickenham when Danty was back at 12. They only got better from there. It would not be at all surprising to see France look substantially less dangerous in this World Cup without Danty.
More pressure goes on Matthieu Jailbert at 10 who will already be shouldering the weight of having to replace the incumbent Romain Ntamack at 10, who looked destined to have the tournament of his life. But also, having a new, less dependable player at 12 will add to the pressure already on him.
The injuries are mounting up for France to the point where it is a serious concern. Previously, thanks to their depth, they can usually replace a player without issue in the aforementioned conveyor belt fashion. For instance, when Melvyn Jaminet was struck down with injury, Thomas Ramos replaced him and was then nominated for player of the 2023 Six Nations. No Marchand? Peato Mauvaka or Pierre Bougarit, who are rapidly approaching world class status, can fill in seamlessly. However, with injuries to Cyril Baille, Paul Willemse, Romain Ntamack as well as Danty, suddenly the spine of the team is missing. They are all big losses to the French side and do damage to their World Cup hopes, but possibly none as big as Jonathan Danty.