Six Nations preview: France to bounce back from Rugby World Cup hurt with title success

James While
France fans after World Cup quarter-final loss alongside Damian Penaud.

France fans after World Cup quarter-final loss alongside Damian Penaud.

Next in our set of previews ahead of the Six Nations we examine the prospects of last year’s second-place finishers, Fabien Galthie’s France.

After the agony of the Rugby World Cup that silenced a country expecting this team to go much deeper in the competition, the wait for an opportunity to get back on the horse is finally over.

France are set to bounce back in style this Six Nations and with the Stade de France out of action they take their home fixtures around the country, as they look to mend the hearts of a nation.

Last year

It’s fair to say France flattered to deceive in the Six Nations. They produced one of their worst performances under Galthie in Round Two, losing 31-19 to Ireland in a game where they seemed shorn of emotion, pace and mojo, after almost conspiring to lose in Rome against Italy in Round One, when only the magic of Matthieu Jalibert saved them in the last quarter of the match.

But, conversely, the dismantling of England at Twickenham 53-10 and putting 40 odd on Wales at home showed they were a side that started slowly but hit some incredible heights later on the tournament, a testimony to their incredible firepower. The Twickenham rout was something very special, a match where their much vaunted back-row simply obliterated the English trio and set a platform for their stellar strike players to run in seven tries with Thomas Ramos, a player that emerged in 2023 as arguably the best full-back in the world, and Charles Ollivon starring in France’s biggest ever win over England.

However, going into their home World Cup as the hottest favourites in years despite an injury list that included world class players such as Romain Ntamack, Julien Marchand, Paul Willemse and others, together with being forced to play their trump card Antoine Dupont with a metal plate in his face, they played a lead role in one of the greatest Tests in history, losing by a heartbreaking single point to the eventual champions South Africa.

Many would write France off after this – but those who saw that quarter-final would know that this is a team capable of beating anyone they encounter, despite their 2023 campaign not meeting the high expectations of both themselves and their fans.

This year

Make no mistake, France have recharged, refreshed and rethought their future. They know they’ll be without Dupont for the whole season due to his Olympic 7s sojourn and Ntamack, a controversial but occasionally mercurial player, also unavailable until March at the earliest. To compound matters, their behemoth troisieme ligne Anthony Jelonch has suffered a second ACL rupture, this time in his left knee, thus ruling him out for at least six months.

However, for every door that closes so a new one opens. Jalibert is cementing himself as the best 10 in the Investec Champions Cup and Top 14 (and arguably the world) after some breath-taking performances for Bordeaux-Begles. Many, including us here at Planet Rugby, consider him to be a better game controller than other options. Over the last four seasons, no 10 has made more breaks, scored more Test tries or delivered more try assists than the Bordeaux magician and he will be partnered by his club nine, the resilient Maxime Lucu, with an array of support talent including Nolann le Garrec in the ranks.

France have also recruited well adding the monstrous Emmanuel Meafou to their second-row and with Uini Atonio now un-retired Les Bleus will be fielding a starting pack weighing over one tonne should they choose to.

In terms of results, France need to show that 2023 was a learning curve and that perhaps it was similar to England’s 1999 campaign which followed a parallel path. The big one is first up – Ireland under lights on the tiny pitch in Marseille and their fans will expect a response to the South Africa quarter-final – nothing else will do.

Key players

On the theme of parallels with England 1999-2003, it’s impossible to overlook their beautifully balanced back-row; Gregory Alldritt, the machine in carry, jackal and ruck work and Charles Ollivon, the most dangerous try-scoring forward in the history of Test rugby are already greats of the French game and in Alldritt, France have selected a captain that is first name on their teamsheet and has proven with La Rochelle that he’s a superb leader. But with Jelonch out, there must surely a fixed place for exceptional Toulouse flank Francois Cros, a man whose unseen work around the contact area balances the carrying excesses of the other two as he wanders around shaking his head, shrugging and tut-tutting, as he spends his time correcting any mess at ruck or maul like a man with breakdown OCD.

Outside of that incredible back-row, the firepower in the backs is something to behold. Damian Penaud is already an all-time great of the world game, let alone the French game, with a try-scoring ability that is seeing him mentioned in the same breath as David Campese and Bryan Habana. At 15, the influence of Thomas Ramos is huge; France love nothing better than playing a vertical stack attack off nine with two standing 10s – then attacking the natural flow side on the wide outside with the second 10 offering support down the middle to pick up devastating inside passes.

But on the subject of tens, Matthieu Jalibert is crucial to France and he needs to now bolt on Test pragmatism to his undoubted attacking genius. At times, he can flake under supreme pressure and his kicking from hand has been known to let him down. He has the ability to be the best 10 in the world and 2024 might very well be the year he makes a step up into the highest ranks of Test fly-halves.

Players to watch

France have courted Emmanuel Meafou for a number of years now and given their jumping riches in the back-row and in Cameron Woki, they can afford to play a man of some 153kgs at the time of writing. He’s a lot more than a lump too, lethal in jackal and supremely capable in carry.

Louis Bielle-Biarrey may have been targeted aerially in that fateful quarter-final but his finishing form for UBB has been exquisite, and his World Cup baptism of fire can only help his learning curve.

A word for Peato Mauvaka; thrown into action when Marchand broke down in the first Rugby World Cup match against the All Blacks, he’s challenging Malcolm Marx for the crown as the best hooker in the world, offering incredibly mobility to his secure set-piece work and has become a key cog in the French machine.

Our last pick showed his worth during the Investec Champions Cup this season – the brilliant Racing 92 scrum-half, Nolann le Garrec, another magnificent nine off France’s half-back production line, and given his pace and elusive running, his duel for the starting shirt with Lucu will feature in many French punditry column inches this season.


France expect and must secure a Grand Slam, it’s that simple.

They are a generational side, potentially the best French team in history and if they’re to kick on from their disappointment in October, only world class is good enough.

They have arguably the best spine of 2, 8, 10 and 15 in the world and their age profile is young enough to take this group into the 2027 Rugby World Cup.

We mentioned that 2023 was France’s interpretation of England in 1999, who went on subsequently to dominate Test rugby for four magnificent years. Only time will tell if France can replicate that, but in the 2024 Six Nations, failure is not an option. First.


Friday, February 2 v Ireland (Stade Vélodrome, Marseille)
Saturday, February 10 v Scotland (Murrayfield, Edinburgh)
Sunday, February 25 v Italy (Stade Pierre-Mauroy, Villeneuve-d’Ascq)
Sunday, March 10 v Wales (Principality Stadium, Cardiff)
Saturday, March 16 v England (Parc Olympique Lyonnais, Décines-Charpieu)

READ MORE: Six Nations preview: England to build on Rugby World Cup but come up short in title push