With the Six Nations set for kick-off this weekend, Planet Rugby takes a look at each team's chances in 2013. Next up, France!
Despite a below-par championship last year, Les Bleus will start this year's edition as one of the favourites after impressing during the November Tests.
Last Year: Having finished fourth in the Six Nations with a team that reached the World Cup final just a few months earlier, the start of the Philippe Saint-André's tenure was, in his own words, "mediocre." It could so easily have been a very different story as France's fate largely hinged on a handful of missed drop-goals that cost them victory over both Ireland and England. Unimaginative tactics and dubious selections of players out of position left French fans frustrated as PSA tried to juggle the need for stability with a desire to blood fresh talent.
In their first three games, Les Bleus started at a snail's pace and were forced to rely on their ultra-experienced bench to launch second-half comebacks to claim wins over Scotland and Italy and a draw in the weather-delayed clash with Ireland. A fourth lethargic start proved too much as defeat at home to England ended their title hopes and signaled the start of many changes. But the subsequent unsuccessful 80 minutes in Cardiff raised more questions than answers.
Fears were eased in November, however, as big wins over Australia and Argentina and a gritty performance against Samoa raised France to fourth in the world rankings.
This year: The ever-contentious Top 14 calendar means that, as usual, France will start their campaign with a number of injury worries and a week less preparation time. The draw is not in their favour either with three of their five games on the road, including a trip to Twickenham that many are predicting could be the title decider. But French teams normally perform best in the face of adversity and Saint-André's squad seems to be have established the kind of cohesive environment that was lacking under Marc Lièvremont.
Thierry Dusautoir is back and has been unburdened of the captaincy to allow him to focus on his return form injury. If he can find to his best form, the French back-row will be phenomenally good. Picking players out of position is a trend that just won't die in France and Wesley Fofana seems set to feature on the wing, much to the dismay of those (including us) who believe he should see as much of the ball as possible in midfield.
Players to watch: The French pack will once again set the benchmark. Louise Picamoles is the best number eight in Europe and his power from the back of the scrum offers a potent attacking option. Frédéric Michalak took a firm grip on the number 10 jersey with a string of excellent performances in June and November and his ability to control the game makes the XV de France a very complete side. Pascal Papé will continue to lead the team without much flash but plenty of hard graft in the trenches.
Prospects: If it weren't for their unfavourable draw, France would be the clear favourites for the title. Back-to-back trips to Twickenham and Dublin present a steep challenge, which is why the bookies have them narrowly behind England in the odds. The pack is without equal in Europe but their ability can go all they way may depend on whether Saint-André can find the right balance to his backline. A Grand Slam may be a bridge too far, but a finish in the top two is expected.
Feb 3: v Italy - Away
Feb 9: v Wales - Home
Feb 23: v England - Away
March 9: v Ireland - Away
March 16: v Scotland - Home