Last year: 2nd
Odds for the title: 11-8
Three victories in the Autumn Nations series against Argentina (29-20), Georgia (41-15) and a first victory over New Zealand (40-25) in 21 years will see them start as many pundits including the bookmakers' favourites to win the Six Nations Championship.
That’s down to a brilliant squad that incorporates, power, athleticism, mobility, set-piece excellence to complement the flair, pace and handling skills of a backline that will be marshalled on his recovery by World Player of the Year Antoine Dupont and a sympathetic fixture schedule that includes home matches against Ireland and England.
France have all the physical tools to win the tournament; they just have to add the mental acuity.
Fabien Galthié suffered wholesale defections from his squad due to the pandemic and injury disrupting the build-up to the tournament. Antoine Dupont, Romain Ntamack, Anthony Jelonch, Francois Cros, Gaetan Barlot, Cyril Baille and Bernard La Roux withdrew because of Covid while hooker Pierre Bourgarit, prop Uini Atonio and flanker Cameron Woki are injured.
Galthie’s decision to invest in talented youth from successive Under-20 World Cup wins has been handsomely rewarded. France have rediscovered some of their traditional playing virtues under his direction. There is a huge depth of quality in French rugby and the only remaining challenge left for the coach is to get the mix right across the five matches.
The key man
There is a huge temptation to turn towards the World Player of the Year and French captain Antoine Dupont and he certainly gives his team a different dimension but there are several other excellent scrumhalves available too and that applies right across the backline with perhaps one notable exception.
Gael Fickou’s maturation as a footballer, his ability to break open defences and on the other side of the ball shut down opposition attack enables France to play the rugby they crave. Fickou provides a ball playing, game reading presence at inside centre, qualities that aren’t replicated to the same level elsewhere on the roster.
The one to watch
The 22-year-old Toulouse wing Matthis Lebel, who can also play fullback, was a member of both of those French Under-20 World Cup winning teams (2018, 2019). He joined the Toulouse academy in 2014 and quickly made an impression, graduating through the ranks until he made it into the senior ranks.
He was the leading try scorer in the French Top 14 last season, running at better than a try every two games with his performances earning him a first cap during the Autumn Nations series. Munster fans will remember his devastating footwork from the Champions Cup match in Thomond Park last April. He won’t be first choice but if he gets a chance, he possesses the talent to cause lots of trouble.
Sunday February 6th, France v Italy, Stade de France (3pm)
Saturday February 12th, France v Ireland, Stade de France (4.45pm)
Saturday February 26th, Scotland v France, Murrayfield (2.15pm)
Friday March 11th, Wales v France, Millennium Stadium (8pm)
Saturday March 19th, France v England, Stade de France (8pm)