Six Nations 2018 Championship in focus: France

With a new coach and a young squad, can France find some winning momentum in 2018?

Newly-appointed France head coach Jacques Brunel has opted for a youthful squad as he tries to re-ignite Les Bleus for the 2018 Six Nations.

Under Guy Noves, France won just three of their 11 Tests in 2017 – all those wins coming in the 2017 Six Nations. A 3-0 series defeat in South Africa last June foreshadowed a poor autumn campaign that ended with a disappointing 23-23 draw with Japan, ultimately costing Noves his job.

Building some winning momentum will be crucial for them – and with three homes games, that is a real possibility – but they will need to hit the ground running against Ireland in the opening game and turn up for their round 4 clash against England.

Championship record

  • Six Nations since 2000: Five-time winners (2002, 2004, 2006, 2007, 2010)
  • Overall: 17 titles outright (1959, 1961, 1962, 1967, 1968, 1977, 1981, 1987, 1989, 1993, 1997, 1998, 2002, 2004, 2006, 2007, 2010)

Fixtures

  • Ireland, Stade de France (Paris), Saturday, February 3 – 4.45pm (GMT)
  • Scotland, BT Murrayfield (Edinburgh), Sunday February 11- 3pm (GMT)
  • Italy, Orange Velodrome (Marseille), Friday, February 23 – 8pm (GMT)
  • England, Stade de France (Paris), Saturday, March 10 – 4.45pm (GMT)
  • Wales, Principality Stadium (Cardiff), Saturday, March 17- 5pm (GMT)

Last year

France finished in the top half of the Six Nations last year for the first time since 2011 with wins against Scotland, Italy and Wales.

They were narrowly beaten by England at Twickenham when Ben Te’o went over in the 70th minute to secure a 19-16 win for England. They started strongly against Ireland as well but their menacing heavyweights up front seemed to run out of steam as the game went on.

What’s hot?

Getting France competitive for the 2019 World Cup in Japan starts in February but first and foremost Brunel needs to develop their confidence – the sort of confidence that only comes from stringing winning performances together. He has a tough task ahead of him as their Top 14 domestic game is dominated by overseas players with their young home-grown players not getting the exposure they need.

There is no doubt that Brunel is trying to get these youngsters up to speed for international rugby with the inclusion of teenage fly-half Matthieu Jalibert as well as 21-year-old fly-half Anthony Belleau. Both may make earlier-than-planned starts due to injuries – look out for Jalibert’s speed and attacking ability.

Another plus for France is the inclusion of La Rochelle prop Dany Priso and flanker-come-lock Sekou Macalou, who Joe Schmidt believes will be the breakout star of the tournament. As usual, their forwards are all impressive specimens. The likes of prop Rabah Slimani and lock Sebastien Vahaamahina are up there with the very best in their respective positions.

What’s not?

While their forwards are impressive, they have lost plenty of their creativity due to injury with the likes of Wesley Fofana, Brice Dulin, Alivereti Raka, Morgan Parra and Camille Lopez all out. Losing that attacking thrust is one problem for Brunel, the other is the loss of experienced heads who could have made debuts for the likes of Jalibert a lot easier than it is going to be.

There are also plenty of distractions off the field, including police raiding the headquarters of the French Rugby Federation as part of an investigation into an alleged conflict of interest involving federation president Bernard Laporte.

Brunel has insisted that he can protect his squad from such issues, but this, and the banning of Mathieu Bastareaud for homophobic slurs, may well have a negative impact on this young and impressionable squad.

What’s changed?

Apart from their head coach and a youthful squad, not much! Brunel won’t be out to make drastic changes to how the team plays – speed and intensity are his key words as he looks to build confidence.

One of the biggest surprises in Brunel’s squad was that there was no place Louis Picamoles. The big No 8 has been one of their biggest ball carriers in the game in recent years, always getting over the gain-line for Les Bleus. They will certainly miss him – especially against Ireland who, in the past, have battled to contain him.

Les Blues fans will also be hoping their scrum can continue to do some damage and that their fitness levels will keep them going for the full 80.

Key player

Guilhem Guirado. There will be a lot of responsibility on the skipper who will lead a very inexperienced team into battle this campaign.

With 56 caps, Guirado is by far the most experienced player in the squad with prop Rabah Slimani second with 41 and scrum-half Maxime Machenaud the next on the list with 31. Apart from his hooking duties, Guirado will also need to be on hand to throw a reassuring arm over some of his younger players when the going gets tough.

France’s 32-man squad for the 2018 Six Nations:

BACKS (14) –

Back-Three: Geoffrey Palis, Hugo Bonneval, Benjamin Fall, Teddy Thomas, Virimi Vakatawa

Centre: Henry Chavancy, Jonathan Danty, Geoffrey Doumayrou, Remi Lamerat

Fly-half: Anthony Belleau, Matthieu Jalibert

Scrum-half: Antoine Dupont, Maxime Machenaud, Baptiste Serin.

FORWARDS (18) –

Hooker: Camille Chat, Guilhem Guirado, Christopher Tolofua

Prop: Eddy Ben Arous, Cedate Gomes Sa, Jefferson Poirot, Dany Priso, Rabah Slimani

Second-row: Paul Gabrillaugues, Arthur Iturria, Felix Lambey, Sebastien Vahaamahina

Back-row: Yacouba Camara, Kevin Gourdon, Sekou Macalou, Anthony Jelonch, Wenceslas Lauret, Marco Tauleigne.

Source.