Next in our set of previews ahead of the Six Nations we examine the prospects of last year’s third placed finishers, Jacques Brunel’s France.
It is all change for Les Bleus with former Italy and Bordeaux-Bègles boss Brunel replacing Guy Novès as head coach of the national team, but can he alter their fortunes? Odds are stacked against the new boss with their system effectively preventing the country from being a dominant power in the world game.
While there is young and exciting talent in the squad, it is difficult to see them challenging England, Ireland or potentially Scotland this year, even if they have three home games this time around.
Although Italy at the Orange Velodrome should pose no problem, the other encounters in France, which take place at their usual stadium of the Stade de France, are against Eddie Jones’ and Joe Schmidt’s men. Good luck Jacques.
Last year: In comparison to previous years, the 2017 championship was actually reasonably successful for Les Bleus. They were slightly unfortunate in their opening encounter against England but their lack of fitness levels eventually told as Jones’ men ended the strongest to emerge 19-16 winners at Twickenham.
They then defeated an improving Scotland 22-16 and, although France succumbed to Ireland in round three, Noves’ men finished with successive victories. The first of those came against Italy, a 40-18 win in Rome, before a controversial match at home to Wales saw the French defeat Warren Gatland’s side 20-18 after 100 minutes had elapsed.
This year: Now under Brunel, France will need to display an improvement if they are to restore their supporters’ faith, but the fixture list is not exactly kind on Les Bleus.
There is also a question over who will actually be in the 23. Novès did not know his best team and no doubt the new head honcho will have his own ideas as to who should take to the field in the opener against Ireland.
Injuries have also hampered preparations with Damian Penaud and Wesley Fofana lengthy absentees but the issues run deeper than that. Despite some talent coming through, the system in place is quite simply not suited for success in the international arena.
They may well eke out a few victories, easing the pressure on the FFR, but there needs to be a complete system overhaul if the French are to rekindle former glories. In many respects, La Rochelle have shown the path they perhaps should be taking, playing a brand of rugby that used to be synonymous with the country, but that has been missing in the national team for some time and it is difficult to see it returning during Brunel’s reign.
Key players: Who knows? There is such a revolving door of individuals that it is difficult to pinpoint who will be France’s linchpins. You can, however, generally rely on Guilhem Guirado and Rabah Slimani to produce world class performances on a regular basis but the usually dominant Louis Picamoles is a surprise absentee after struggling for Montpellier this season.
Behind the scrum, Antoine Dupont was one of the few bright sparks in November, impressing against New Zealand, and Virimi Vakatawa is always a threat when he takes to the field, but the Fijian-born back has weaknesses defensively.
Players to watch: Injury will unfortunately deprive us of seeing the talented Clermont Auvergne duo Fofana and Penaud in action, but club team-mate Sebastien Vahaamahina is consistently excellent for his club. The lock is approaching world class level and this competition is huge for Vahaamahina to fulfil that potential on the international stage.
Another player France may look to is Anthony Belleau. The Toulon fly-half played in the autumn and, although he struggled at times, the pivot has ability and has impressed in the Top 14 and Champions Cup over the past 18 months. With Les Bleus lacking top quality talent at fly-half, he and another youngster – Bordeaux’s Matthieu Jalibert – are individuals who could take France out of this current predicament.
Prospects: Not good, if preparations are anything to go by. Again, there are some very talented Frenchmen (and Fijians) in the Top 14 but it takes more than that to win in modern day rugby, primarily structure, confidence, consistency in selection and conditioning.
With Brunel as head coach, another 60-plus boss whose ideas appear obsolete at international level, it hardly inspires confidence. Although he has selected some exciting youngsters, will they be intimidated by France’s fixture list? They face Scotland and Wales away from home in the Six Nations – two games which they will struggle to win – while their toughest matches come at the Stade de France. For most, that would be beneficial but for an organisation that, in many respects, is in disarray, it is difficult to see them defeating Ireland and England. It could be a tough couple of months for Les Bleus.
Saturday, February 3 v Ireland (Stade de France)
Sunday, February 11 v Scotland (Murrayfield)
Friday, February 23 v Italy (Orange Velodrome)
Saturday, March 10 v England (Stade de France)
Saturday, March 17 v Wales (Principality Stadium)