France go into the 2018 Natwest 6 Nations looking to forget a painful 2017. They registered just three wins in eleven Tests, all of which came in the 6 Nations. A three-Test tour to South Africa in June ended in a whitewash and Les Blues narrowly avoided the same fate in the Autumn. Their final match of the year saw Yu Tamura pull a late conversion wide, as France escaped with a 23-23 draw against Japan. The final whistle at the U Arena in Paris was greeted with boos – it couldn’t get any worse in 2018 could it?
Well it’s hardly been a quiet start to the year, head coach Guy Noves was sacked over Christmas, in came Jacques Brunel. Mathieu Bastareaud was suspended over homophobic remarks made while playing for Toulon against Treviso, which has meant his absence for France’s first 6 Nations match. And last week the offices of the French Rugby Federation (FFR) and Bernard Laporte’s home were raided by police, investigating an alleged conflict of interest involving the French rugby president. All of this is an unwelcome distraction for a team trying to restore its credibility as a rugby force.
The problems don’t end there, the French Top 14 may be awash with cash, but it’s led to an influx of foreign talent, which in turn drains the opportunities for young French players to flourish – the demands for success mean coaches are often risk adverse. But captain Guilhem Guirado feels there is still plenty of depth for France to be competitive.
“We are good players, we have a good championship, but the results with the French team is not good. We just hope that we can play well, like we do in the year, with this team.”
19-year-old Bordeaux Begles flyhalf Matthieu Jalibert was named-checked by Ireland head coach Joe Schmidt at the recent Six Nations launch. He is one of six uncapped players named by Brunel, while 17 players are aged under 25. Can France be realistic contenders? It’s an emphatic ‘Yes’ from 31-year-old Guirado.
“Yes. Yes of course, but it just depends on this first game and we just prepare this game, because it is the most important for the competition and we can win we can continue like this and continue to progress.”
A win over Ireland would certainly ease the pressure somewhat, particularly with a daunting trip to BT Murrayfield to take on the in-form Scotland in week two.
Brunel has taken on unenviable tasks before – he was Italy head coach for five years, leading the Azzurri to first ever 6 Nations wins over France and Ireland. His international pedigree also includes a stint as an assistant coach for France between 2001 and 2007. The 64-year-old also steered Perpignan to the French Top 14 title in 2009, when Guirardo was emerging.
“I know him because I had him eight years ago in Perpignan at the start of my career. He’s a good coach and I hope he can add some experience for this young group.”
It’s a new squad with a new coaching set-up, all hastily assembled. A first Six Nations title since 2010 seems fanciful, but Guirado remains optimistic.
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