Philippe Saint-André has bucked the trend with a reasonably consistent group to the ones rolled out in November, but it’s a bad time to be named Maxime. Messrs. Médard, Mermoz, and Machenaud have all been deemed surplus to requirements, though on the plus they might have a career ahead as a folk trio.
On a more serious note, all three would be seriously disappointed given the obvious ramifications regarding World Cup selection. Machenaud is in good form for Racing Metro, among the better sides in Europe at the moment, while Rory Kockott messes about with Castres, who look good bets to be relegated at the end of the season. Mermoz has reportedly been dumped for having a bad attitude. Not exactly a strong endorsement of character to be labelled a prima donna even by French standards.
Another frustrated absentee is Dimitri Szarzewski, the long-time hooker who missed out on November’s tests with injury but is back to fitness with Racing Métro. One has to wonder what the point of having a so-called ‘elite squad’ if you aren’t going to pick of them. At least the English have that part in order. Naming only two hookers is strange but these are relatively early days yet and Szarzewski should still be considered odds-on to take part in the World Cup.
Count his clubmate Eddy Ben Arous as one decidedly happier, recalled in place of Xavier Chiocci. Given that he and Alexandre Menini are the specialist looseheads, he could finally get a run of games at test level after being around the squad for more than a year. Thomas Domingo remains on the outskirts but if either Menini or Ben Arous fail, he could return sooner rather than later. Rabah Slimani has at least returned, and though he appears to be behind the giant Uini Atonio in the tighthead pecking order, his ability to cover both sides of the scrum should see him in a good position to travel to England in September.
Speaking of excessively large individuals, one titan has been swapped for another with Sébastien Vaha’amahina left out in favour of Romain Taofifenua. Suspension cost the Toulon heavyweight a spot in November’s matches, and he will be champing at the bit to get a proper run out in the Six Nations, with a view to ousting the aging Pascal Papé as first choice body mangler. Yoann Maestri is no shrinking violet himself, and appears to be regaining some form along with the rest of the maligned Stade Toulousain crew.
The back row is much the same, but with both Charles Ollivon and Louis Picamoles set to start the tournament on the sidelines, it’s uncapped Loann Goujon of Stade Rochelais who will challenge incumbent Damien Chouly for the no8 position. Recently announced as heading to Bordeaux next season, Goujon is bigger than Antonie Claassen and more athletic than Gillian Galan, his two closest competitors on the depth chart. This is quite a leap in competition after being one of the stand-out performers in the Pro D2 over the last two seasons.
Most French eyes will be transfixed on Camille Lopez, the Clermont flyhalf whose commanding style and kicking ability sets him apart from so many of his predecessors. It’s been refreshing to see someone take ownership of such an historically volatile jersey, and most will be quietly, or loudly, hoping that he presents himself as a long-term solution. The accurate distribution game of halfback partner Sébastien Tillous-Borde suits him, and with a number of line-breakers at his disposal in the three quarters France are looking pretty potent out wide.
If monstrous Mathieu Bastaread is deemed too unfit and out of form to start, it’s Rémi Lamerat most likely to operate outside Wesley Fofana, with Alexandre Dumoulin not quite at full health at the moment either. Lamerat plays for an unfancied Castres side but is a powerful attacker with a good fend and an effective short passing game. Brice Dulin, Noa Nakaitaci, and Sofiane Guitoune have all been recalled to provide numerous options out wide, with really only Yoann Huget assured of his place. It’s a good problem to have, with still others like Médard, Benjamin Fall, and Jean-Marcel Buttin not able to find a spot.
Such a glut of talent has always been an issue for France, who seem to be unable to decide who their best players are regardless of who is in charge. No other country would have been prepared to toss out half the side only a year out from the World Cup (Vern Cotter might disagree) and yet here we are still working through configurations, with no clear indication of who might start at virtually every position. If Saint-André is to find any success in the immediate future, or a few months down the line, he’ll have to sort out his best XV rather quickly.
With only two home fixtures and France traditionally average tourists, this looks like it could be a difficult competition. A strong start against Scotland in Paris will help no end, but to follow it up in Dublin is a serious challenge. It’s foolhardy at best to try and predict not only the selection but the form of French sides, and until the second week is over there’s no sense looking beyond. For now Les Bleus remain les grands prétendants, enigmatic as ever and frankly it just makes every week that little bit more exciting.
**EDIT: Brice Dulin has been ruled out with injury, replaced by Morgan Parra
02/07 – 17:00 GMT – vs Scotland – Stade de France, Paris
02/14 – 17:00 GMT – vs Ireland – Aviva Stadium, Dublin
02/28 – 17:00 GMT – vs Wales – Stade de France, Paris
03/15 – 15:00 GMT – vs Italy – Stadio Olimpico, Rome
03/21 – 17:00 GMT – vs England – Twickenham, London