Six Nations 2019: Brunel and France looking for youthful revival
Les Bleus endured a torrid 2018 but can call on exciting crop of junior world champions
Toulouse’s Romain Ntamack could be set for his international breakthrough. Photograph: Billy Stickland/Inpho
Mercurial, maverick, brittle, combustible, thrilling and frustrating - it is hard to be sure which France will turn up, but their chances of winning a first championship since 2010’s Grand Slam look slim. Last year was an Annus horribilis for Les Bleus, who won just three matches and suffered a particularly embarrassing 21-14 home defeat to Fiji in November - their first ever loss to the Pacific Islanders. However, there are some green shoots of recovery with Jacques Brunel selecting five uncapped players in his original 31-man, while Toulouse’s resurgence bodes well for the national side. Teddy Thomas is set to miss the start of the competition which is a big blow, but Brunel has been able to call on the experience of Louis Picamoles and Guilhem Guirado to complement the likes of the prop Demba Bamba and Toulouse nine Antoine Dupont. A sustained challenge looks beyond France but don’t rule out a few statement performances ahead of the World Cup.
Brunel took over at the end of 2017, following the sacking of Guy Noves. After Noves struggled to operate within the restrictions of the French system Brunel - who formerly worked as a coach for Bernard Laporte, now president of the FFR - was seen as the man to patch Les Bleus back together. His first year in charge was a difficult one, with France winning just three matches. However, one of those was a morale-boosting Six Nations win over England at the Stade de France, and they also gave the All Blacks plenty to think about despite a 3-0 series defeat down under. France have an exciting crop of younger players coming through, winning the Under-20 World Junior Championship in 2018. Brunel’s commitment to blooding youth will stand to them as the World Cup approaches.
Only seven member of France’s original 31-man Six Nations squad have made more than 50 appearances, with captain Guilhem Guirado now a 63-cap veteran. Only Louis Picamoles (72) and Morgan Parra (69) have represented their country more from the current crop.
While France are stocked with exciting backs and powerful runners up front, any sort of tilt at the championship will need to be built on a solid set-piece - an area in which they have been lacking in recent years. The 32-year-old Guirado remains one of the world’s best hookers, and if the French pack is to be truly competitive then Guirado’s ability and experience will be key. He will be ably supported by back-up Camille Chat.
One to watch
The uncapped Romain Ntamack old could prove to be one of the breakout stars of the 2019 Six Nations. The son of French legend Emile, Ntamack helped steer France to the World Rugby Under-20 Championship in 2018 and is the second member of that crop to progress into the first team squad, after prop Demba Bamba. The 19-year-old has been a regular for Toulouse this season, with the French giants resurgent both in the Top14 and the Heineken Champions Cup, although he did struggle against Leinster at the RDS. Ntamack can play at outhalf and 12, with Brunel suggesting he is in the squad as a centre. While competition in the form of Mathieu Bastareaud, Gael Fickou and Wesley Fofana is stiff, Ntamack is surely on the brink of his first cap.
Grand Slam: 40-1
Not great. France won three of their 11 Test matches in 2018, beating Argentina but losing to South Africa and Fiji on home soil in November.
France finished fourth last year, with victories over England and Italy. They were on the brink of beating Ireland in the Championship opener in Paris - until ‘Le Drop’ at the death gave the visitors a 15-13 win.