Six Nations candidates: France

France has the greatest representation among the Heineken Cup quarter-finalists, but will this translate to a strong Six Nations performance? Jonny Mcleod brings us his views.

Strengths:

The French will go into this year’s Six Nations with momentum generated by a flourishing club game. Four French sides have reached the quarter-finals of the Heineken Cup, with all of them looking capable of reaching the final. It should ensure their players join up for national duty high on confidence and optimism.

Their backline exudes power with Mathieu Bastareaud reinstated to the midfield alongside the influential Yannick Jauzion while Vincent Clerc should help ensure their finishing is clinical.

France also have enviable options in the back-row with supreme lineout forward and powerhouse Imanol Harinordoquy back from injury to fight Idrissa Ouedraogo, Julien Bonnaire and Alexandre Lapandry for the blindside flanker role. They possess the forwards to steal the hard yards around the ruck as well as the devastating surges and supporting runs. Their set-piece should be reliable as well as destructive.

They will also carry vast experience into the Championship.

Weaknesses:
Inconsistency continues to blight France’s international side. Their high point of 2009 came in Dunedin when they claimed a first win in 15 years over New Zealand on home turf – just their fourth overall. But it was top and tailed with anti-climactic Six Nations campaign and an average autumn series that ended in a humbling loss to the vengeful All Blacks.

Consistent outcomes require consistent inputs such as selection, tactics and mind set. True to reputation there are changes to Marc Lievremont’s squad for the Championships. And Lievremont’s selection could infer much about their potential tactics. The free spirits of Cedric Heymans, Maxime Medard and Frederic Michalak are out and the physicality of Bastareaud, Aurelien Rougerie and Julien Malzieu return. Could the French be set for a swing towards former coach Bernard Laporte’s pragmatism after Lievremont’s liberating beginnings? May be not entirely.

Most of all France’s attitude – and discipline – will be under the microscope. They celebrated victory over Wales in Paris last season as if it were the Championship decider, and then failed to turn up to Twickenham for the final match against England.

With two of their three opening games away from Paris, their bid could hinge on their trip to Cardiff in the third game.

Coach’s perspective:
“Cliches aside, we really have to start the tournament well in Scotland,” Lievremont told AFP. “At the start of every Six Nations the deck of cards is reshuffled and it creates a dynamic. Added to the duty of having to win the tournament, I really want our team — and it has the means to do so — to play an interesting, attacking type of rugby.”

Key player: Thierry Dusautoir
The Toulouse flanker is one of the finest back-rowers in Europe rugby with a work rate to eclipse any and incredible strength in the tackle. But his leadership could be the most tellingly as he attempts to galvanise a team of talented individuals. He, along with fly-half Francois Trinh-Duc, will be crucial.

One to watch: Mathieu Bastareaud
The beast of a centre is back. The 21-year-old sensation has not featured for France since fabricating an assault story in New Zealand in the summer. He will bring ball-wrecking momentum to the French midfield.

Stadium: Stade de France
The atmosphere may not be as scolding for visiting teams as the Parc des Princes once was, but its futuristic design and capacity of almost 80,000 makes for a dramatic setting.

France’s Six Nations Fixtures:
Sun 7 Feb v Scotland, Murrayfield, Edinburgh
Sat 13 Feb v Ireland, Stade de France, Paris
Fri 26 Feb v Wales, Millennium Stadium, Cardiff
Sun 14 Mar v Italy, Stade de France, Paris
Sat 20 Mar v England, Stade de France, Paris

Last season: 3rd
Prediction: 1st

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