With the Six Nations kicking off this weekend, we take a closer look at the prospects of each competing team, starting with France.
With the Six Nations kicking off this weekend, we take a closer look at the prospects of each team, starting with France.
After two very poor years, Philippe Saint-AndrÃ© has promised that 2014 will be the year of revival, but the XV de France will have to do it without Thierry Dusautoir.
Last Year: Having finished fourth in the 2012 Six Nations with a team that had reached the World Cup Final just a few months earlier, it was hard to imagine Philippe Saint-AndrÃ©'s second Championship being much worse. Yet it was.
Defeats in Rome, at home to Wales and at Twickenham made for an horrific start. A draw in Paris against Ireland meant that victory at Murrayfield on the last weekend wasn't enough to avoid the Wooden Spoon – France's first in the six-team era and only their second in 44 years. Failure was an understatement.
Unimaginative tactics, dubious selections, issues at fly-half and a bench that made very little impact – it was a campaign that bore many more lessons than results. PSA blamed the overloaded domestic season and limited preparation time. And while those excuses carried some merit, they fell some way short of explaining France's lack of attacking spark.
This year: Not for the first time, how France will fare is the biggest mystery of the Championship. They have a very good draw – including three home games – and, for the first time in years, enough time to prepare with a extra week given to the national squad before the opening game against England at the Stade de France .
Injuries in key positions have, however, severely dented their chances. The silver lining to last June's winless tour of New Zealand was the emergence of RÃ©mi TalÃ¨s as the number one fly-half, a position were les Bleus desperately need consistency. But the Castres pivot has been ruled out of the first game with a biceps injury and with Camille Lopez also sidelined and Fred Michalak out of favour, the French attack is set to be led by either an uncapped youngster (Jules Plisson), a retreaded scrum-half (Jean-Marc Doussain) or FranÃ§ois Trinh-Duc, who has been added to the squad at the eleventh hour after a year out in the cold. There is no need to expand on the loss of Dusautoir, the former World Player of the Year is, in the words of Toulouse coach Guy NovÃ¨s, “irreplaceable.”
But not all is lost. There is real quality to be found throughout the squad and progress has been made since last year's disaster, as illustrated by solid performances against the All Blacks and Springboks in November. The extra preparation time is massive step in the right direction but it's time for this generation to step up.
Key Players: The absence of Thierry Dusautoir means that Pascal PapÃ©'s leadership will be crucial. Louis Picamoles' ball-carrying power from the base of the scrum was missed in November an his brute strength, especially when the tryline is in sight, is set to be a key weapon. Saint-AndrÃ© has finally seen the light and is picking Wesley Fofana at 12 and French fans can only hope that Europe's most dangerous back will be allowed to express himself by whoever plays at fly-half.
Players to watch: It's no small feat to keep Springbok ace MornÃ© Steyn out of a starting line-up but Stade FranÃ§ais playmaker Jules Plisson has been hailed as the next great French fly-half (hands up if you've heard that one before). His club's results – they lead the Top 14 – certainly suggest the hype is not without merit. By contrast Nicolas Mas has not always started for Montpellier this season. The 33-year-old tighthead has been the rock on which the formidable French scrum has been built for the last four-odd years. It's almost a decade since he made his Test debut and if the grunt is gone, les Bleus will suffer immensely.
Prospects: If the French pack can front up to England on Saturday then a home game against Italy a week later offers a chance to set the early pace. If Murrayfield can be conquered, as it should, then France could very well still be in the hunt for the title when Ireland visit Paris on the final day. A slow start, however, could mean a high-pressure mid-tournament trip to Cardiff, where the wheels could come off the bus. The history books show that France tend to win the Six Nations in years following Lions tours and both Saint-AndrÃ©'s predecessors won the Grand Slam in their third year in charge. Wooden Spoon to Grand Slam in 12 months? Only the French could even imagine it…
Sat, 1 Feb v England (Stade de France)
Sun, 9 Feb v Italy (Stade de France)
Fri, 21 Feb v Wales (Millennium Stadium)
Sat, 8 March v Scotland (Murrayfield)
Sat, 15 March v Ireland (Stade de France)
by Ross Hastie