As we all know, the Six Nations is getting closer and closer. On the 7th February, the tournament will be underway with England taking on Italy at Twickenham, followed by Ireland against France in Dublin.
Ahead of this year’s Six Nations, much of the talk has been regarding whether England can improve under Martin Johnson, whether Ireland can finally put their dreadful World Cup campaign behind them or whether Wales can match their achievements of last year when they emerged as Grand Slam winners.
However, what of the team that Wales beat to confirm their achievement last year? What about Marc Lièvremont’s French side? Where do they stand ahead of the 2009 Six Nations?
I suppose the most appropriate thing to do at this stage is to take a look at their squad for the tournament. They have named a squad that contains no uncapped players whatsoever, so they are obviously keen to put out a team that contains players with at least some experience of international rugby.
One man that has missed out despite his undoubted experience though is Frédéric Michalak. The 26-year-old has won 50 caps so far for his country, but has been overlooked since making his last appearance for France during the World Cup third-place play-off defeat by Argentina in October 2007.
It had been suggested that returning to French Top 14 club Toulouse after a year in South Africa would have done Michalak’s chances of a recall no harm at all. However, a poor performance in the 33-26 defeat to Glasgow in the Heineken Cup was probably the nail in his coffin.
The player himself believes he can still win over Lièvremont by ‘giving his all’ for Toulouse in the coming weeks. For now though, Michalak will have to watch on as his team take on Ireland in a couple of weeks’ time.
So, what of this French team? Well, the omission of Michalak means that they are going into the Six Nations with just one recognised fly-half and this is a risk. Lionel Beauxis will start in possession of the number 10 shirt, with Jean-Baptiste Elissalde likely to act as cover for the Stade Francais playmaker.
Elsewhere, the inclusion of Clermont skipper Aurelien Rougerie is significant for me. He has impressed domestically for his club and could be one of the shining lights in this French team. I’d expect him to line up in the France back three against Ireland and hopefully he will prove his worth to Lièvremont.
Overall, this is a very significant Six Nations for France and especially for their coach. Many French Rugby fans have been calling for him to resign and perhaps a poor Six Nations campaign would mean that they get their wish. There have been too many flat performances of late and in truth, the Lièvremont reign has been far from inspiring.
There is no doubt in my mind though that they still have a chance of victory in this year’s tournament. They still have significant attacking threat from all areas of the pitch and Paris is still one of the hardest places to visit for opposing teams. Should they get a positive result in Ireland, it could well start a run of improved results for them.
The rugby betting reflects this as they are second favourites behind Wales to be the outright winner of the tournament. Betfair’s rugby odds have them at 4.2 (16/5) to win the tournament and 10.5 (9/1) for the Grand Slam.
Like I mentioned though, a lot could hinge on the opening game in Ireland because should another tame performance be put in, the pressure on Lièvremont will increase a great deal.
By Thomas Rooney