Unrecognisable Bleus still the recognised favourites
Only caveat is their less favoured draw could see Sainte-Andre’s men once falling short at Twickenham
Unrecognisable from last season, a new era has already dawned for Les Bleus and they come into the Six Nations as a revitalised force with four wins on the bounce after an encouraging trio of November victories over Australia, Argentina and Samoa. All has changed, changed utterly, and coach Philippe Saint-André has already made huge strides toward the 2015 World Cup.
France had reached the last World Cup with the oldest team in the tournament.
A bizarre campaign, even by French standards, featuring a defeat to Tonga and a quarter-final win over England, ended with the team emerging relatively heroically after their somewhat unjust 8-7 defeat to New Zealand in the final.
Hence, last season, Saint-André’s first Six Nations campaign, it was difficult for the new coach to cast the old guard adrift immediately. They were worthy of one more tilt at glory, but having finished fourth, many either retired or were jettisoned, and Saint-André evidently has a clear vision of the nucleus of his team for 2015.
Only five of the World Cup final XV (Vincent Clerc, Maxime Mermoz, Morgan Parra, Nicolas Mas and Pascal Pape) featured in the November window. While the injured Clerc is replaced by the uncapped Stade Français fullback/wing Hugo Bonneval, Maxime Medard has returned for the injured Castres fullback Brice Dulin, while Thierry Dusautoir returns after just two outings for Toulouse.
It is thus likely that in addition to Julien Bonnaire, who retired from Test rugby, we have seen the last of Dimitri Yachvili, Imanol Harinordoquy, Damien Traille, Lionel Nallet, Jean-Baptiste Poux, William Servat, Aurelien Rougerie and others.
The process began on the summer tour to Argentina when Pape was made captain and newcomers brought on board although another key factor is the comeback king, Frédéric Michalak. A new man, he returned to the team after his stint in South Africa following the 23-20 defeat in the first Test in Argentina, kicking 19 points in the six-try, 49-10 second Test win and despite playing at scrumhalf this season with Toulon, was the mastermind at outhalf in the three autumnal wins. In his last four Tests, Michalak has scored 77 points.
Inside him that day in Tucuman, and making his Test debut, was Machenaud, who is regarded as typical of the new breed of bright, dedicated professional. Machenaud cut his teeth for three seasons in the ProD2 with Bordeaux Begles before rejecting an offer to be his home town club’s best paid player to join newly promoted Agen in 2010 on less money as back-up scrumhalf in order to enhance his career.
Again, having become first-choice there, he reputedly rejected an offer of the highest salary at Agen to join Racing at the start of this season.
Although he is not a goal-kicker, Machenaud has replaced Parra as first-choice French scrumhalf by dint of, partially, his superior kicking game from hand.
Brice Dulin played alongside Machenaud in Agen, and was one of the surprise hits of the Argentinian tour and November series. The Castres fullback belies his size with his security under the high ball and is an enterprising, exciting counter-attacking player in the true traditions of French number 15s.
Niggling groin problem
A niggling groin problem has limited his training and affected his form, with another young newcomer, Buttin, an alternative. He kicks less and is even more inclined to counter-attack, and might therefore be regarded as more of a risk.
On form, France would be entitled to start favourites, although a genuine caveat is their less favoured bi-annual itinerary, which begins in Rome next Sunday, and has a six-day turnaround before hosting Wales, with successive trips to London and Dublin. Hence Saint-André’s contention that the tag should belong to England.
That pivotal game may well hold the key to their prospects and, a little ominously, they have lost on five of their half-dozen treks to Twickenham since the tournament was expanded to Six Nations, the one exception a fortuitous 18-17 win eight years ago, courtesy of six penalties by Yachvili.
Six Nations pointers
All three of their Grand Chelems since the turn of the Millennium (2002, ’04 and ’10), and all bar one of their five Six Nations’ titles in that time, have been achieved when England and Ireland have come to Paris, as opposed to this year’s itinerary which takes them to London and Dublin.
Nicolas Mas still locks down the scrum, the re-energised Louis Picamoles and Yannick Nyanga provide some of the hard yards, with the grunt coming from Yoann Maestri and new skipper Pascal Pape. Down-to-earth and good-humoured, Pape enjoys a good relationship with Philippe Saint-André, who also hails from the same part of the Rhone Valley south of Lyon, and whom Pape played for back in his early days at Bourgoin.
As well as Wesley Fofana, who made a spectacular introduction to test rugby in the 2012 Six Nations and has been an ever-present under Saint-André, the Clermont winger cum fullback Jean-Marcellin Buttin is likely to switch to fullback for another newcomer, the injured Brice Dulin, Racing scrumhalf Maxime Machenaud, with a reborn Frederic Michalak pullng the strings, the recalled Maxime Medard still hunting tries and Maxime Mermoz and Florian Fritz the midfield axis.
Six Nations squad
Backs: Maxime Machenaud (Racing-Metro) Morgan Parra (Clermont) Frederic Michalak (Toulon) Frangois Trinh-Duc (Montpellier) Mathieu Bastareaud (Toulon) Jean-Marcellin Buttin (Clermont) Vincent Clerc Toulouse) Brice Dulin (Castres) Benjamin Fall Racing-Metro) Gael Fickou (Toulouse) Wesley Fofana Clermont) Florian Fritz (Toulouse) Yoann Huget Toulouse) Maxime Mermoz (Toulon)
Forwards: Vincent Debaty (Clermont) Thomas Domingo (Clermont) Yannick Forestier (Castres) Benjamin Kayser (Clermont) Guilhem Guirado (Perpignan) Dimitri Szarzewski (Racing-Metro) David Attoub (Stade Frangais) Luc Ducalcon (Racing-Metro) Nicolas Mas (Perpignan) Yoann Maestri (Toulouse) Pascal Pape (Stade Francais, captain) Jocelino Suta (Toulon) Romain Taofifenua (Perpignan) Damien Chouly (Clermont) Thierry Dusautoir (Toulouse) Wenceslas Lauret (Biarritz) Yannick Nyanga (Toulouse) Fulgence Ouedraogo (Montpellier) Louis Picamoles (Toulouse)