Over the past decade there has often been a sense of the unknown with France entering the Six Nations, but what should we make of the 2020 vintage?
Les Bleus were desperately unlucky to lose their Rugby World Cup quarter-final to Wales 20-19, that heartbreaking defeat in Japan bringing an end to Jacques Brunel’s tenure.
It was already known Fabien Galthie would replace Brunel after the conclusion of rugby’s most prestigious competition and he wasted little time in stamping his authority on the squad.
At a tournament where it seems every team is going through a transition of sorts, France – whose last Six Nations triumph was in 2010 – in particular are headed for a new era and there is plenty of intrigue over how they will fare.
OUT WITH THE OLD IN WITH THE NEW FOR LES BLEUS
When announcing his Six Nations training squad at the start of January, Galthie named 19 uncapped players in a 42-man party that had an average age of just 24.
Only 15 of the squad that travelled to Japan were retained in that selection, with Maxime Machenaud, Camille Lopez, Rabah Slimani and Yoann Huget among the notable absentees.
France have won the past two World Rugby Under-20 Championships with Louis Carbonel, Cameron Woki, Arthur Vincent, Jean-Baptiste Gros and Killian Geraci among the graduates from those teams called into the training squad.
Perhaps wisely, Galthie only has two uncapped players starting for a formidable opener against World Cup runners-up England at the Stade de France, with Montpellier duo Anthony Bouthier and Mohamed Haouas starting at full-back and tighthead prop respectively.
But both Woki and Boris Palu could make their debuts off the bench, while the inexperienced Demba Bamba and Peato Mauvaka are aiming to build on their fledgling international careers and Julian Marchand makes his first France start at hooker.
OLLIVON TAKES ON THE ARMBAND
If proof were needed of Galthie’s intention to build for the future, then look no further than the decision to name Charles Ollivon as captain.
With Guilhem Guirado having retired from international rugby, Toulon flanker Ollivon was chosen to lead France against England despite the 26-year-old having gained just 11 caps.
England coach Eddie Jones promised his side will bring “brutal physicality” to Paris, so a starting XV with an average of 15 caps could be in for a baptism of fire.
It will fall on the likes of Gael Fickou (51 caps) and Bernard Le Roux (37 caps) to lead by example as the more seasoned players on the pitch to help Ollivon and the inexperienced players in the team.
EXCELLENT EDWARDS A SHREWD ADDITION
It is not just on the pitch where Galthie has looked to shape his own squad, there have been changes off the pitch too.
Les Bleus legend Raphael Ibanez – part of Grand Slam-winning Five Nations sides in 1997 and 1998 – has arrived as team manager, Laurent Labit has left Racing 92 for a place in the national backroom team, while William Servat, Karim Ghezal, Thibault Giroud and Nicolas Buffa will all serve under Galthie.
But perhaps the most important appointment is that of Shaun Edwards, who is the new defence coach.
Edwards is one of the most highly rated coaches in world rugby and had a plethora of options after leaving a similar role with Wales he had enjoyed for 12 years.
Working alongside Warren Gatland, Wales won four Six Nations titles, including the Grand Slam in 2008, 2012 and 2019, while they were World Cup semi-finalists twice in that time.
In August 2018 it was announced Edwards had agreed to take over Super League side Wigan Warriors but he later stated a contract was never presented to him.
The Warriors’ loss could be yet be France’s greatest gain. The chance to work with a promising, yet raw team is one that is sure to excite Edwards, who also been involved in the past two British and Irish Lions tours with Gatland.
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