State of the Nation: France

Date published: March 25 2015

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As we do at the end of a major tournament, we look at the state of affairs in each of the competing nations. Last up, France!

Philippe Saint-André will go down as officially the worst coach in French history, at Six Nations level at least, after leading les Bleus to bottom half finishes in each of the last four seasons.

Daniel Dubroca is the only other French coach to fail to win the Championship during his tenure, and even he managed a second and a third spot in his two seasons in charge.

While France might have been inconsistent from game to game, they have consistently challenged for the Five or Six Nations title since the 50s, but Saint-André has overseen their transformation into also-rans.

It would be unfair to pin all the blame on PSA, there are very real concerns about the money in the Top 14 being detrimental to the national side, but he has had access to his players that his predecessors could only have dreamed of.

This tournament saw France revert to a pragmatic approach for four games, before throwing it all out of the window against England.

One of the few bright spots appeared to be the defence before the trip to Twickenham, with just two tries conceded in four matches, but they then shipped seven in 80 crazy minutes in south west London.

In attack France certainly turned things around as well, and in that sense there were some promising signs.

Still, with just six months to go before the World Cup, there look to be just four people who are nailed on to start the opener against Italy on September 19.

Guilhem Guirado has now started ten Tests in a row at hooker, and added a couple of try assists on Saturday to complete an impressive tournament. He will be joined by Yoann Maestri in the second-row, while Thierry Dusautoir was something like his old self in the second half of the tournament.

Finally Yoann Huget seems to be the one sure starter in a backline which looks anything but stable.

Behind that quartet, Bernard le Roux played every minute of the tournament, but faded in the second half, and still looks to be a poor fit alongside Dusautoir. A more dynamic, offensive flanker would surely work better, but neither Alexandre Lapandry, nor Yannick Nyanga, are currently starting for their clubs.

Scott Spedding might have secured the full-back berth, although that seems harsh on Brice Dulin, France's best back for the last 18 months until injury, and unfortunate to be singled out after the defeat to Wales on his return.

There were some pleasant surprises. Eddy Ben Arous has improved as a scrummager, and around the park it's hard to think of a more mobile prop, while Noa Nakaitaci was at times unstoppable against England, even if his first Test try almost ended in disaster.

The biggest issue seems to be in the half-backs, where players seem to go backwards upon arrival with les Bleus. Camille Lopez was the form fly-half in Europe before the tournament, but looked a shadow of himself by the time he suffered a knee injury in Rome.

Jules Plisson also struggled against England, having impressed off the bench against the Italians, while at scrum-half, neither Sébastien Tillous-Borde nor Rory Kockott convinced.

Goal-kicking is also a major problem, with Lopez and Plisson both finishing with a 70 percent success rate, and Kockott has been out of sorts from the kicking tee this season.

That has led to calls for Jonathan Wisniewski or Pierre Bernard to get their shot, but while the former is certainly an accurate goal-kicker, it's hard to see him being called in at this late stage. Bernard is also uncapped, but has at least been involved in the French set-up under Saint-André. It's difficult to see either being the solution though.

A fit Morgan Parra could certainly help in that regard, but he will need to recover in time from his knee ligament injury to prove his fitness. His long-time half-back partner François Trinh-Duc is also back now, and has the rest of the Top 14 season to win over Saint-André.

There are others who missed the Six Nations who might come back into contention for the World Cup. Louis Picamoles seems a certainty for the squad, while old stagers like Imanol Harinordoquy and Aurélien Rougerie could yet feature. Their leadership would certainly help, although you sense a coherent game plan would be of greater value.

It's hard to really gauge what France are capable of in six months' time. Losing by 20 points to England is hardly a promising way to head into the tournament, but les Bleus have a nice draw with Ireland and Italy in their pool.

While the Irish are undoubtedly favourites to top the group, France were within a score in Dublin, and it's not inconceivable that les Bleus could turn them over.

More likely is that France will finish second before losing to New Zealand in the last eight, capping a miserable end to Saint-André's reign.

By Paul Eddison

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