France: Six Nations Preview

France: Six Nations Preview
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Updated: Feb 1, 2023 9:09 am

French rugby is experiencing a golden period, with a young side brimming with verve and confidence. France have gone from flaky and frustrating to fabulous in the space of a couple of years. They have become the neutral’s darling, playing with the customary French flair of yesteryears. But this French side has the substance to match the style, the guts to match the glamour. Currently favourites for their own World Cup in September, can they handle the pressure?

2022 was a brilliant year for the French, winning all their ten matches and stretching their unbeaten run to thirteen games. They sealed a first Grand Slam in twelve years by playing some scintillating rugby, combining brute power with Harlem Globetrotters-esque handling. What was especially impressive about France’s rugby was how ruthless they were, showing a new-found precision in the red zone. They also showed an ability to edge tight games, a vital trait of any good side. Their autumn victories over Australia and South Africa were snatched near the death. This French side has character and self-belief, a grit to match the sparkle.

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The current French side has become known for throwing the ball around with a joie de vivre. However, if you peek beneath the magic, the French play with calculated precision. They are devastating around the ruck area, where scrum-half and captain Antoine Dupont is especially lethal. France often look to flood through a channel, with a big emphasis on support runners and offloading. It’s a game built on relentless momentum, with their hard-carrying forwards busting the gain line and creating quick ball. The French abide by the old cliche of earning the right to go wide, picking their moments. When they go wide, in winger Damien Penaud, they have one of the game’s most lethal finishers. The French benefit from astute decision-making, which is impressive given the side’s relative inexperience. 

France also kicked more ball than any other side in 2022. However, they kick with a purpose, seeking to pin the opposition back and wait for them to make a mistake. Their kick-chase is excellent, and they seek to turnover the ball deep in their opponent’s territory; in transition, there’s nobody more lethal than the French. France’s defence has been completely revolutionised under Shaun Edwards, and they are often happy to cede possession, displaying a newfound patience. They turned over more ball than anyone else in 2022, an area where Gregory Alldritt, in particular, is a goliath.

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Fabien Galthié has named eight uncapped players in his 42-man squad for the tournament. There are some notable absentees; France will miss the powerful presence of Jonathan Danty in the centres, while the versatile Cameron Woki also misses out through injury. Danty’s injury could hand a debut to nineteen-year-old Émilien Gailleton, the exciting young centre who captained France’s U20 team last year and has been carving up trees for Pau this season. The only worry for France would be if they got injuries in key positions, with a lack of experience behind their props, Cyril Baille and Uini Atonio in particular.

France begin their tournament with a trip to Rome. The improving Azzurri should represent little threat, and Galthié will hope his players come through unscathed ahead of their crunch match against Ireland in round two. Their match at The Aviva will have a significant bearing on the title, and it’s a shame it’s being played so early in the tournament. France are one of the few sides who have the potential to ruffle Ireland’s staunch defence, but the key battle will be at the breakdown, where Ireland boasts a master poacher in World Rugby Player of the Year, Josh van der Flier. There is little between the two sides, and the result will likely be decided by whose more accurate on the day. France should dispatch with Scotland in round three before they travel to Twickenham in round four. The French have an abysmal record in London, but this is the best French side to visit Twickenham in a long time. They close out the tournament at home to Wales, a game they should win comfortably.

France has the potential to repeat their success of 2022; they will have to be wary of complacency, though. The key game will be their trip to Dublin, a seismic encounter that hopefully lives up to its billing. France now has the burden of expectation, a difficult beast to tame. But this French side is made of stern stuff, and for rugby’s sake, hopefully, they can replicate some of the stunning rugby they produced in 2022. The sky is the limit for this fledging French side.

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