Six Nations preview: Holders France to fall just short in title defence
Finally in our set of previews ahead of the Six Nations we examine the prospects of last year’s winners, Fabien Galthie’s Grand Slammers, France.
This year’s edition of rugby’s greatest championship comes with the added weight of the 2023 Rugby World Cup looming in the minds of players and coaches alike.
France’s 2022 was a benchmark year: unbeaten in every outing, a worthy Grand Slam under the captaincy of Antoine Dupont, which preceded an unbeaten tour of Japan and a clean sweep in the Autumn Nations Series.
With a home World Cup this year, Les Bleus look red-hot favourites to lift their first title, despite a growing injury list in key positions. The key question is; can they build on 2022 and keep an upward trajectory or have they peaked a little too early, leaving themselves in a dangerous decline into 2023?
France kicked off with a business-as-usual win against Italy with the added bonus that the all-action Gabin Villiere showed his potential in a hat-trick performance. As expected, the Irish’s visit to Paris was a close affair, with the match in the balance right down to Melvyn Jaminet’s 79th-minute penalty as France, rather worryingly, lost the try battle by three to two.
Scotland felt the pace of the French backline as a Damian Penaud-inspired performance saw Gregor Townsend’s men smashed off the park in a 36-17 win, with Scotland scoring in the last minute to make the scoreline slightly more respectable.
A Friday night visit to Cardiff saw a dour affair with an early Anthony Jelonch try in the corner but, thereafter, a stodgy affair of exchanged penalties as the visitors never quite managed to cope with the excellence of the Welsh defence. Still, Galthie’s men concluded their campaign in fine style against England, winning 25-13 in a game that featured, rather ironically, one of the better displays from Eddie Jones’ men.
France’s depth saw them deal with the retirement of Virimi Vakatawa and the long-term injury to Charles Ollivon, and a positional shift saw Cameron Woki start to excel as a lock, but in truth, despite the Grand Slam, there were a couple of fixtures that might have gone either way, a theme that continued into the Autumn Nations Series where both the Springboks and the Wallabies pushed them to within a score.
France enter 2023 with high hopes but low availability. Whilst the talismanic Ollivon came back in November and continued his world-class form, and both Paul Willemse and Francois Cros have managed to get back in the nick of time, Jonathan Danty and Woki are all long-term absentees, with regulars Peato Mauvaka, Jean-Baptiste Gros and Maxime Lucu also missing from the Six Nations squad. Matthieu Jalibert is carrying a few knocks but should be available, leaving France needing to rejig their three-quarters and also think about their lock stocks.
They have a tough schedule. An opener against Italy in Rome is a given, but the following weekend sees them travel to Dublin in a match that should inform the fate of the 2023 Six Nations as one plays two in the world rankings. Scotland and Wales at home should see full points but sandwiched in the middle is a tricky trip to Twickenham against an English side that may be starting to gel by that fourth weekend.
Galthie has three main selectorial dilemmas; who replaces Woki at lock, and in the short term, who covers the big 12 role in Danty’s absence? The third is the ongoing thinking at 10. Does he stick with the Toulouse understanding of Romain Ntamack alongside the brilliant Dupont, or does he opt for the greater match control of UBB’s Jalibert, assuming the latter’s fitness?
It already seems likely that Gael Fickou will revert to 12 in Danty’s place, with Yoram Moefana coming in at outside centre, but at lock, the picture is less clear. Might he move the mercurial Ollivon up into the second-row and play both Cros and Jelonch or will he go like for like and start Romain Taofifenua? For us, it’s the power of the latter, given the enormous lineout firepower the French back-row possesses, but it could well be that Galthie wants the Woki-like athlete, which might just be Ollivon.
What can we say about Antoine Dupont that hasn’t been said already? He’s already on his way to being one of the greatest players in history, and he’s bolted on an ability to play at 10 (watch this space – it could actually happen). Dupont’s greatest quality is his performance ceiling – he simply doesn’t appear to have any limit to the levels he’s able to go up, always able to find an extra gear or two against any opposition. The best player in the world, bar none.
🇫🇷 Cometh the hour. Dupont strikes. #FRAvENG #GuinnessSixNationspic.twitter.com/kLsJjxa4p4
— Planet Rugby (@PlanetRugby) March 19, 2022
If Dupont is the best player around, Charles Ollivon and Gregory Alldritt, both on our watch list, are surely both in the top four. Ollivon’s sheer work-rate, ability to intervene in any given situation at the breakdown, his lineout brilliance and a try-scoring ratio of a try every 2.5 Tests is quite remarkable. A shoo-in for a world XV, his leadership is a vital support system for Dupont’s brilliance as a skipper, and at 6’6″ and 118kgs, he is an absolutely massive unit with gas to burn.
Alongside Ollivon, Alldritt is a machine of breakdown pressure, gritty carry and tackling power. Not the tallest eight in the world, he’s almost a modern day Wayne Shelford: supremely abrasive, wonderfully effective and absolutely relentless.
Finally, Racing 92 centre Gael Fickou is a deceptively complete player. A huge unit at 6’3″ and 17 stones, his leadership of the backline and captaincy of the defence are crucial jobs for France, and his talents go under the radar compared to the likes of Penaud and others around him. Nevertheless, he is the vital cog in the French backline, the man that leads the defence, creates transition attacks and organises the chaos around him.
Players to watch
Toulouse openside Francois Cros seems to have been around a lot longer than his 16 caps suggest, but his relentless work at the breakdown was sorely missed by France in the autumn. Nicknamed ‘Mr Clean’ by his teammates due to his abstentious lifestyle and total commitment to fitness, he is the man that delivers the unsung work and creates the pressure for others to profit from. A crucial man sorely missed by France in recent matches.
France’s full-back cupboard is bursting with riches, with Jaminet, Anthony Bouthier and Brice Dulin all capable Test match performers. However, Thomas Ramos offers that vital option of an auxiliary fly-half, acting as a standing pivot to allow his 10 to loop around as a second receiver and also cover any back three position or fly-half if Galthie wants to experiment with bench configurations.
On the topic of versatility, our last pick is Sekou Macalou, a player so adaptable that we had to check the French squad announcement to see if he was listed as a back or a forward. His appearances on the wing for France last season defied any prescribed rugby logic, and he appears to be a man that could conceivably play in any of 10 positions at professional level, despite being obviously a flanker of Test standard.
Sekou Macalou did a really great job at wing on Saturday #FRAvRSA pic.twitter.com/XRyonAmclu
— Jared Wright (@jaredwright17) November 16, 2022
His lonely hearts column should read, ‘attractive 27 y/o seeking a permanent home and long-term relationship’ – but until that happens, we’ll enjoy his insane flexibility.
There’s a gathering feeling in the sport that 2022 was France’s peak and that potentially they’re on a downslope this year. We don’t see that, but we do see a form blip in the Six Nations until the likes of Danty and Woki return.
The crucial match is the Ireland game. It’s perhaps a little too early in the calendar for France, that traditionally they can be slow starters and poorer on the road, and Ireland are out to avenge their defeat last year. There’s also the curveball that Les Bleus have a six-day turnaround before Dublin, adding more pressure to them.
It is a contest that will define the French campaign, and as we see Ireland taking it, it looks like Galthie’s men will finish this season as Six Nations runners-up. Second place.
Sunday, February 5 v Italy (Stadio Olimpico)
Saturday, February 11 v Ireland (Aviva Stadium)
Sunday, February 26 v Scotland (Stade de France)
Saturday, March 11 v England (Twickenham)
Saturday, March 18 v Wales (Stade de France)
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