Next in our set of previews ahead of the 2016 Six Nations, we examine the prospects of a new France under Guy Novès.
The Philippe Saint-André era is over and it’s finally time to see whether France are a side in permanent decline, or whether Guy Novès will be the man to turn things around.
The old cliché about never knowing which France side would turn up was as tired as it was lazy, but one thing you could always rely on before PSA was that les Bleus would be contenders for the title.
Four years of borderline unwatchable rugby – and to be honest the previous four had far more lows than highs – have left many wondering whether there is any way France can restore their former glories.
It’s up to Novès and a new generation to reestablish les Bleus as a European superpower. Arguably the most decorated club coach of all time, faces possibly his biggest challenge yet.
Last Year: The culmination of four years of disappointment came at the World Cup, but last year’s Six Nations wasn’t much better. A workmanlike win over Scotland was followed by uninspiring performances in defeats to Ireland and Wales.
A 29-0 win in Rome was much less impressive than the scoreline suggests, while the bonkers final day loss to England featured the try of the tournament from Vincent Debaty, as well as France’s worst-ever defensive performance against the English.
This Year: A new coach, a new captain and ten uncapped players in the squad, we don’t know if France will be good, but they’ll certainly be different.
Novès has promised to try to attack, and his squad looks set up to do so. His later Toulouse teams might have lacked the flair of old, but with a solid set-piece they should have a decent platform to at least try to play more expansive rugby.
As ever the question marks are at fly-half where an out of sorts Jules Plisson will battle part-time ten Jean-Marc Doussain for a starting role, while a lack of depth on the wing is a real issue.
Still, a home game against Italy is a dream start, and with three home matches including both Ireland and England, there is potential to get on a roll.
Key Players: The backline will bear almost no resemblance to that which lined up at the World Cup, even if Scott Spedding remains in contention at full-back.
As a result, France will need their pack to front up, and there are a number of players Novès will look to in that regard. At scrum-time Rabah Slimani has become as reliable a tighthead as there is, and his reputation finally appears to be catching his performances.
Louis Picamoles has also been in fine form for Toulouse, and while he may lack the all-round game of Saturday’s opponent Sergio Parisse, there are few who can make as big an impact.
Add in new skipper Guilhem Guirado, a leader by example in the mould of Thierry Dusautoir, and Yoann Maestri, the gritty character you need in the second row, and there’s the makings of a formidable pack.
Players to watch: Ten new caps means there will be plenty of new faces on show.
Anyone who has watched Toulouse over the last 18 months will be excited about scrum-half Sébastien Bézy. He revealed this week his childhood idol was Dimitri Yachvili, but he plays much more in the impudent manner of Jean-Baptiste Elissalde.
The dearth of wingers means that Virimi Vakatawa will likely start on Saturday, and although it’s a huge gamble, the potential he offers make it an understandable call.
One of the best players on the Sevens circuit, he was a promising XVs player beforehand and could flourish.
Prospects: Two home games to start including the opener against Italy is about as kind a start as Novès could have hoped for. Get on a roll and France could challenge for a top three spot if not better.
There are questions over how quickly the new players will gel though, and whether Novès will really be able to put in place a more ambitious team. Still, an improvement on the last four years has to be the minimum expectation.
Saturday, February 6 v Italy (Stade de France)
Saturday, February 13 v Ireland (Stade de France)
Friday, February 26 v Wales (Millennium Stadium)
Sunday, March 13 v Scotland (Murrayfield)
Saturday, March 19 v England (Stade de France)