Next up in our set of previews ahead of the 2017 Six Nations, we examine the prospects of France under Guy Novès.
French rugby has been stirring from a slumber since November and the Six Nations could be the tournament where Les Bleus finally wake up and reach their potential. Admittedly the side is depleted after a string of injuries and there is a Fofana-shaped hole in the back line, but France is more than just Wesley Fofana.
Guy Novès and his team were left frustrated after narrow losses to Australia and New Zealand in November. However, France’s performances a few months ago showed promising signs of a new style of French rugby.
More recently, Novès has spoken of ‘continuity’ so we can only assume the French coach will continue to build his game plan around an improved offload game. Depending on how much the side has been shaken by the injuries, a top three finish might not be out of reach.
Last Year: France finished with a disappointing fifth place last year despite winning their first two games of the tournament. Les Bleus just managed to hold on against Ital: Virimi Vakatawa impressed with a try on his debut but the French defence did not. Italy managed to score two tries and may have won if Parisse hadn’t missed a late drop-goal attempt.
Against Ireland it was Maxime Médard, left out of this year’s squad, who secured an unexpected victory for his side with a try in the 69th minute. However, after scraping through two matches victorious, France were defeated in their last three games.
Two weeks later in Cardiff, a miskick from Jules Plisson made it all too easy for George North to score five points. Despite an early try from Guilhem Guirado, set up after another impressive break from Vakatawa, France’s title hopes were ended with their first loss to Scotland in ten years.
The following weekend, France looked to spoil England’s Grand Slam prospects. Maxime Machenaud slotted an impressive seven penalties but this was not enough to counterbalance a poor French defence.
This Year: The focus in France is on continuity, players are now familiar with each other and with Novès’ preferred style of play. Hopefully, this will allow France to build on the weaknesses highlighted by the November tests.
Preparation in the French camp has taken on a new format this year with one week of general work and another ten days of training focussed exclusively on le Crunch – a sign of just how tough that first match will be.
A major talking point is the string of injuries sustained in one weekend of Champions Cup rugby: France lost two centres and three of their pack all in a matter of days. It will be interesting to see how Novès manages this when he announces his starting XV for Saturday.
A win at Twickenham may be asking too much, but home games against Scotland and Wales could prove decisive in the French campaign.
Key Players: Guy Novès speaks very highly of his captain Guilhem Guirado and for good reason. The French hooker leads from the front and understands Novès’ vision for the side. Fellow forward Kevin Gourdon will be an important defensive force, having played an integral part in La Rochelle’s rise to the top of the table in the Top 14.
In terms of attack, Virimi Vakatawa will be expected to pick up where he left off in November, having scored four tries in three matches.
Players to Watch: Usually, discussion in France centres on who will start at fly-half. With Fofana out though, all eyes will be on who can step up in the centre.
Mathieu Bastareaud is an intimidating defensive force at Toulon but Novès has commented previously that he does not fit with the new French style. Rémi Lamerat performed well in November but may lose out given that his greatest strength was how well he linked with Clermont teammate Fofana.
Perhaps Gaël Fickou will fill the gap then; French coaches identified the kicking game as a weakness in November and this is an area in which Fickou has been reliable all season.
Prospects: As more injuries were announced, the FFR website described the situation as a ‘massacre’. Guy Novès is more positive, though, saying the squad has ‘solid foundations’. According to World Rugby rankings, France should finish fifth in the Six Nations, although based on the November performances, French fans have reason to hope for more.
November saw France come close but lose out due to basic errors. As a result, French coaches said they would analyse players’ performances from November and draw up individual training plans based on each one’s weaknesses.
If France can play with the same style but more precision over the next seven weeks, they could finish a few places higher than their ranking suggests.
Saturday, February 4 v England (Twickenham)
Sunday, February 12 v Scotland (Stade de France)
Saturday, February 25 v Ireland (Aviva Stadium)
Saturday, March 11 v Italy (Stadio Olimpico)
Saturday, March 18 v Wales (Stade de France)