France have not finished in the top three since 2011. On last year’s evidence, putting them in top three seems like a strange call, but I think France are back. At last.
Overall, France were the best side in the Six Nations from 2000-2011, and were feared opposition. They have not found form for a while, though. However, they will see this year as a chance to bounce back.
2016 started with another poor Six Nations, but it’s worth noting they managed to grab a big scalp against Ireland. They managed to earn a thumping win in Argentina in the summer and eased past Samoa in Autumn. This was followed by narrow defeats to Australia and New Zealand.
It seems Guy Noves knows his best team, and it is a good one at that. France have quality players and their talent seemed to shine through a lot more in an Autumn where they scored 94 points in three games.
They looked more organised and threatening, and while they are still a fair way off England and Ireland (games in which they’ll be the visiting side for both), they will feel good about their chances in the home games.
The French pack is well organised and even through this turbulent six-year period, it has shown itself capable of winning games through dominating up-front. Most clearly perhaps when they beat England in the 2015 World-Cup warm-up. They will be difficult to take on up-front.
France boast some really dangerous players like Gael Fickou and Nao Nakataci. They aren’t going to single-handedly win games, but if they are given space and quality ball to play with they can make teams pay. In-form Camille Lopez may just be the fly-half to bring this through. It is a real shame they don’t have Wesley Fofana for their sake, however.
Inconsistency. It’s a classic rugby cliche but the French just aren’t consistent enough. And if they have one of their “off days” in any game then they’ll really struggle to win, even against Italy.
They also head into this Championship low on confidence. As much as I believe they’ve improved, they don’t really have that many results that would suggest so. Although you could argue with the number of players that play for Clermont Auvergne, they will not be unaware of what it takes to win.
The Key Men
Guilhem Guirado made his way into many teams of the tournament and will be an important leader and component in a pack that has potential to dominate teams. He was a shining light last year, but if more players step up this time around, then don’t be surprised to see them dominate.
Maxime Machenaud will be a vital player at 9. He is very dangerous around the ruck and has all the skills that you need from a scrum-half nailed. He will also be kicking the goals for France and his typically high percentage could be vital in the tight games.
The Difference Between Success and Failure
Consistency and home performances will be key.
As already mentioned, the French are inconsistent. That doesn’t mean I don’t think they can find that. The most important thing is finding a team and sticking with it, something Phillipe Saint-Andre couldn’t do.
They need to control their home games, because both Scotland and Wales will fancy a win in Paris. Scotland haven’t won for a while, but they are in a good place, while Wales have five wins on the bounce against Les Bleus. If they start poorly those sides will believe, and their home fans will turn on them.
Why They’ll Finish Third and The Implications of This
I think France will beat the Scottish and Welsh, and will be successful on the road in Rome. I just think they have the quality of players and coaches to earn those wins. There’s no guarantee of that though, even as I write this I can see the Scots ending their wait for a win in Paris, the Welsh finishing the Championship on a high and Italy winning back the Giuseppe Garibaldi trophy.
But my gut says France will get the job done in those matches, though they won’t beat Ireland nor England away, but they’ll do enough for third and Guy Noves will see some progress. A third place finish will be good for them, but I think they are a long way from being a World Cup or even Grand Slam winning team.