Home ground: Stade de France, Paris
Head Coach: Philippe Saint-André
By ancient rite and lore, France’s strength is their unpredictability. That incredible historical talent that turned defence into attack in a twinkling of Serge Blanco’s eye – which is much, much quicker than the eyes of mere mortals.
But, unpredictability has been a thing of the past in French sides since Bernard Laporte was coach. He gave it up as the price for increased discipline. It has, so far, shown no signs of returning under Philippe Saint-André. Move along, then. No thrilling French ‘total rugby’ to see here.
That said, Saint-Andre has three-quarters at his disposal that would have any coach salivating. Yoann Huget, Maxime Médard and Brice Dulin make up a back three that is capable of ripping through any less-than-perfectly organised defence. Wesley Fofana is a king among centres. It’s just a shame that Florian Fritz is injured. Speaking of which…
No Thierry Dusautoir. No Morgan Parra. No Sofiane Guitoune. No Fritz, no Tales, no Lopez as backup. France’s injury list reads like that depressing poem about November that cruel teachers used to soften up innocent new pupils before unleashing the war poets.
Cruel circumstance has forced Saint-Andre to patch up his squad for this Six Nations from the outset.
Fly-half Remi Tales and fullback Jean-Marcellin Buttin fell by the wayside at the weekend, prompting him to call up Montpellier’s long-forgotten Francois Trinh-Duc and Racing Metro’s fast bunny Marc Andreu as cover.
Very few international sides can cope with losing so many key players. This particular incarnation of France is not one of them.
Player to watch: Brice Dulin
With a pack that could be mistaken for a decent-sized mountain range and with Wesley Fofana scaring the Brian O’Driscolls out of everyone in midfield, the Castres Olympique full back is easy to miss – as many an opposition defender has discovered to his side’s cost.
It goes without saying that Dulin is lightning quick and, although he’s relatively small, he’s a giant under the high ball. Just as a full back should be.
He’s also more slippery than an eel liberally slathered in grease then dipped in butter, and has a sixth, seventh and eighth sense about where those tiny, almost insignificant defensive gaps are. The danger for opponents is that, when he finds them (which he does with terrifying frequency), those gaps very quickly become very significant indeed.
He missed last year’s Six Nations, which was good news for his club as he was a key player in their surprise and secret charge to the Top 14 title, but was a rare light in the darkness during France’s dismal summer tour of New Zealand – and made Les Bleus’ number 15 shirt his own during the autumn internationals.
Last season: 6th
The less said about France’s 2013 Six Nations campaign, the better. They ended up with the wooden spoon for the first time since 1999, with a face-saving final day 23-16 victory over Scotland and a draw against Ireland the only vague positives from an awful tournament. It was the start of a terrible year for Les Bleus, who finished 2013 with just two wins and a draw from 11 matches.
Much has been made of the fact that France have a habit of winning every Six Nations after a Lions’ tour. That’s unlikely to happen this year, with Le Crunch kicking off France’s tournament. Even in Paris, this is not a game this France side can be certain of winning. England have won two of the last three here, and five of their last seven.
There will be times when France are on the front foot and, when that happens, there will be more than a few hints of past glories – just not enough to win this tournament. In fact, not in any tournament, until Saint-André learns to pick the right player for the right position…
It’s hard-to-the-point-of-impossible to see past Wales or Ireland as champions – and England are certain to be there or thereabouts. You can perm any one from that trio for any of the top three places. Which leaves France to head up the also-rans with Scotland and Italy.
By James Harrington (@blackmountained)
Photo by: Patrick Khachfe / Onside Images