If it’s 2023, all eyes must be on Les Bleus. All roads lead to France for the 2023 Rugby World Cup, a tournament for which they are favourites as well as hosts, and they come into this year’s Guinness Six Nations as the reigning Grand Slam champions on the back of an unbeaten 2022.
Furthermore, last season’s round two clash between France and Ireland in Paris felt like the title decider in the build-up, and that feeling was vindicated by both the high standard of France’s 30-24 win and the final table.
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With last season’s itinerary being repeated, so it is that Ireland and France will meet again in the second round after opening matches against Wales and Italy, and the bookies once again reckon it could ultimately prove to be the championship decider.
Since last year’s coronation when they beat England in the Stade de France, Les Bleus backed up a 2-0 series win in Japan with a much-changed team before completing a clean sweep in November against Australia, South Africa and Japan.
However, somewhat akin to Ireland’s unbeaten November after the high of that series win in New Zealand, even attack coach Laurent Labit admitted that France had lost some of their spark, and that opposing teams had started to work them out a little.
The Shaun Edwards-devised defence and their kicking game, along with occasional individual brilliance, provided the bedrock of their wins, especially against Australia, when the Wallabies countered France’s emphasis on their kicking game by, untypically, giving their hosts a dose of their own medicine.
With that in mind for the Six Nations, Galthié is happy for his team to be more the hunted than the hunters this year.
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“It is true that the question is often asked,” he said at last Monday’s Six Nations launch in London. “As we arrive with the trophy and the Grand Slam, our status has evolved. But that’s what we’ve been looking for since the beginning of our mission three years ago. We laid down the fundamentals with a clear vision: win matches very quickly, win titles and become a major nation in world rugby. We managed to do it in three years and thirty games played. We are back in the world top three and our ambition is still the same. For this fourth season, we don’t want to change.”
Trips to both the Aviva Stadium and Twickenham would appear to make another Grand Chelem more difficult, and Galthié admitted: “These are two exceptional matches, in magnificent stadiums, against the best opponents in the world. Ireland are ahead of us and everyone knows the level and quality of this English team, especially when they play at Twickenham. We are going to experience these matches thinking first of all of preparing well. We live these meetings as pieces of life. It’s a total immersion and a plunge into this unique atmosphere. As I often say to players: ‘welcome to the sublime and the wonderful.’
“They are sublime adversaries, the coaches are big names, and we, with our weapons, will measure ourselves against them by being able to dominate them and win our Test matches. Every time we leave a match, we are no longer the same. This is how we are going to experience these two trips. I will also add Italy. There is no mistaking the potential of this team. We will also stay in Rome to go back to Dublin on Thursday. We have three first weeks which are great to live between Capbreton, Rome and Dublin.”
Les Bleus also arrive at the 2023 Six Nations with a fairly extensive injury list, including ten players who were capped last year, amid related concerns about their players’ heavy workload for club and country. Plus ça change.
Many of the French squad have played 14/15/16 games this season, totalling over 1,000 minutes.
Much has been made, for example, about the 16 games Antoine Dupont has played this season as against nine by his Irish counterpart, Jamison Gibson-Park, although the latter was injured until the November internationals.
Whereas Gibson-Park has played 506 minutes this season, Dupont (who has completed 80 minutes in all but one of his dozen starts for Toullouse) has played 1,160 minutes.
Asked at the Six Nations launch if French players were required to play too many games, the French captain countered: “I think we have to look at the subject the other way around. It’s not that we play too much, it’s that there are too many games.
“When you’re part of the staff of the XV of France or a Top14 club, you always want to put your best players on the pitch, and that’s normal. The problem today is is that the calendar is too full, and the rest periods are sorely lacking.”
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“In the immediate future, it is difficult to find improvements. We players are in the middle of all this and we cannot ask our coaches not to make us play. Even if I still think that there was more turnover than usual in my club Stade Toulousain. This makes it possible to reduce the drop in level during the meetings. This is a problem that must be solved.”
As for their casualty list, both of the established back-ups at hooker to Julien Marchand, namely La Rochelle’s Pierre Bourgarit (ACL) and Toulouse’s Peato Mauvaka (fractured finger) are sidelined. So too is Racing 92 lock Cameron Woki (broken hand), the Bordeaux-Bègles back-up scrumhalf Maxime Lucu (sprained ankle) and the influential duo of La Rochelle centre Jonathan Danty (posterior cruciate ligament) and the fearless, ball of muscle that is Gabin Villière (hand fracture and fibula fracture). The latter is expected to play his comeback game for Toulon this weekend and could come into the equation against Ireland.
As has been the case for the last three years, Galthié initially named a 42-man squad for a week’s preparation, which took place in the south-west coastal town of Capbreton in the Landes, before releasing 14 players back to their clubs for a full programme of Top14 games. The 28-man squad departs for Rome on Monday for a week in the Eternal City. They will then spend a third week away when staying on in Rome before departing to Dublin.
The 23-year-old Montpellier scrumhalf Léo Coly suffered a thigh injury in training, and Baptiste Couilloud has been recalled to the squad, with Baptiste Serin left out in the cold again. The other big losers in a World Cup year were hooker Camille Chat, props Demba Bamba and Dorian Aldegheri, wingers Alivereti Raka and Dimitri Delibes, and fullbacks Brice Dulin and Anthony Bouthier.
They miss out to Melvyn Jaminet and Thomas Ramos, and it is Galthié's selection between those two at fullback which has replaced the Romain Ntamack-Mathieu Jalibert outhalf debate - Ntamack having seemingly seen off Jalibert’s challenge despite an injury-delayed start to the season and rusty November.
Galthié and Labit have previously shown a distinct preference for Jaminet and his metronomic goalkicking (92 per cent success rate) which was on display last Sunday in place of Ramos when Munster took on Toulouse, who was completing a five-week suspension.
Even so, speaking in the eve of this tournament, Galthié told Midi Olimpique: “These are two very different fullback profiles which will bring strength to our project.
“Melvyn Jaminet has the longest and highest kicking game on the international circuit. That’s how it is. When we have him, we know what he can bring to the XV of France. Thomas Ramos, he has other qualities, especially in the animation of the game, where he is very close with Romain Ntamack and Matthieu Jalibert. He is a bit like a second number 10, in the conduct of the game. In the air, he also fights a lot, wins his duels.”
Interestingly, in an open session watched by 3,000 school kids in Capbreton during the week, Ramos was running more in the first XV, and in tandem with his Toulouse kindred spirits, Dupont and Ntamack, he would perhaps bring more attacking flair.
A key absentee in the autumn was their secondrow enforcer Paul Willemse, who is back in harness, and likely to start alongside Thibaud Flament, while another boon from last November was the return of former captain Charles Ollivon, who provides another brilliant line-out option, as well as experience, football intelligence and X-factor. In tandem with Anthony Jelonch and Grégory Alldritt, who seems to be man of the match for La Rochelle and France virtually every time he plays, they will form a brilliant backrow.
If Villière doesn’t make the starting blocks against Italy or Ireland, the indications also are that the Lyon 22-year-old Ethan Dumortier, an old-school, tall and rangy winger who is brilliant in broken field, will take his place. Dumortier is the leading try-scorer in the Top14 and has scored 11 tries in all his 14 games this season.
There remain doubts about the form of some of their players, they may be the hunted ones this time, but this team still looks as if they’ll take some hunting.
France’s 2023 Six Nations itinerary:
05/02: Italy vs France, 4pm
11/02: Ireland vs France, 3.15pm
26/02: France vs Scotland, 4pm
11/03: England vs France, 5.45pm
18/03: France vs Wales, 3.45pm
Possible team v Italy (and Ireland): Ramos; Penaud, Moefana, Fickou, Dumortier; Ntamack, Dupont (capt); Baille, Marchand, Atonio; Flament, Willemse; Jelonch, Ollivon, Alldritt.
Replacements: Barlot, Wardi, Faletea, Taofifuena, Macalou, le Garrec, Jalibert, Jaminet.