By Tadhg Peavoy
Can France be any worse in 2014 than they were in last year’s Six Nations? Unlikely. Last year’s wooden spoon for Les Bleus – their first since 1999 – was hugely surprising given they were one of the favourites going into battle on that first weekend of action a year ago.
What followed from France was truly bizarre. They lacked guile, vigour, passion or creativity. They were predictable and dull, and never displayed the flair the world has come to expect from their performances.
Philippe Saint-André was brought in as head coach to ensure France returned to more reliable ways following the departure of Marc Lievremont as gaffer in 2011, but in truth it has been a highly unsuccessful tenure thus far, with a fourth-place Six Nations finish in 2012 preceding their wooden spoon in 2013.
Things haven’t got much better since. This summer they toured New Zealand and came home on the end of a 3-0 series defeat, including a 30-0 hammering.
Further defeats to South Africa and New Zealand sandwiched a facile victory over Tonga last autumn. In short, France seem in total disarray.
However, despite their shocking run of form, they, in fact, do not look a million miles away from clicking.
Take a JP Pieterson blockdown-try out of it and they may well have been beaten South Africa, while their performance against New Zealand in the autumn was so improved on their displays in the Land of the Long White Cloud that the signs of a revival - despite the defeat - were there for all to see.
The question of whether they are strong enough to win the championship is a tricky one. On paper, yes, they have the wherewithal.
But with Thierry Dusautoir and Florian Fritz both out injured, and a general lack of self-confidence infiltrating the team, it does seem hard to see them atop the Six Nations summit come March.
One gets the impression this could be a France side that sniffs around the middle of the table, as they could lack the cutting edge to claim four or five victories over the course of the spring.
The pack looks solid, with Thomas Domingo, Dimitri Szarzewski, Nicolas Mas, Yoann Maestri, Pascal Papé, Yannick Nyanga and the excellent Louis Picamoles forming a world-class core.
France should gain parity in most areas with their pack.
The backline is where the worry is. There is talent in the form of Mathieu Bastareaud, Maxime Medard and the supremely gifted Wesley Fofana.
But at halfback they look light. Maxime Machenaud is likely to get the nod at nine, while at ten Francois Trinh-Duc is the only recognized out-half in the squad.
France also only have nine backs in their squad to face England on the opening weekend, which is a bit of a head scratcher and leaves one wondering if they plan a route one forward-driven assault in le Crunch.
Given the superb form of England’s pack over the course of the autumn, this could well be a foolhardy approach. Traditionally, France know it is in the back division that they can outsmart, rather than outmuscle, European rugby’s aristocrats.
If Saint-André plans to continue down a road of brutality rather than inspiration, I would worry for the side over the course of the spring.
A year and a half out from the World Cup this team needs to begin to show signs that it can meld and has the capacity to deliver more than simply solidity, or Saint-André may come under extreme pressure in the role. Thus far the FFR have given him their full backing.
There are more questions than answers relating to France as we approach the championship. But is it not that mercurial tendency which always makes them so fascinating and by turns infuriating to follow?
All signs points to mid-table obscurity, which for a side like Scotland or Italy might be deemed acceptable, but the French expect more from their team.
But then there is the kicker. France have won the championship that took place in the year after a Lions tour on the last four occasions: (1998, 2002, 2006 and 2010).
In those four years the freshness their players had the following spring gave them that crucial edge in Europe’s premier international tournament.
And with that everything changes. Despite their average form in the autumn, and their unpredictable nature under Saint-André, they must be considered contenders, and with two home matches to get their campaign under way, and priced at 5/2 for the title, they do represent a very good bet.
Les Bleus open their account at home to England in Paris on 1 February. Victory there followed by another home victory over Italy would put France in a very solid position for a tilt at the title.
From there they face a very tough away assignment against Wales in Cardiff, before another away match against Scotland.
They finish with a home tie against Ireland, a match which les Bleus have not lost since 2000, making it a very desirable round-five fixture for the French.
All in all, Saint-André’s team has been about as predictable as the Albanian public transportation system over the last few years.
So, it’s bloody hard to know what the rugby public is going to get from them in 2014.
That first weekend against England seems crucial, win le Crunch and they could get that crucial confidence-building win they’ve ben searching for over the last 12 months.
France squad for the 2014 RBS 6 Nations:
Forwards: Thomas Domingo (Clermont), Yannick Forestier (Castres), Benjamin Kayser (Clermont), Dimitri Szarzewski (Racing-Métro), Nicolas Mas (Montpellier), Rabah Slimani (Stade Français), Alexandre Flanquart (Stade Français), Yoann Maestri (Toulouse), Pascal Papé (Stade Français, captain), Bernard Le Roux (Racing-Métro), Antoine Burban (Stade Français), Yannick Nyanga (Toulouse), Damien Chouly (Clermont), Louis Picamoles (Toulouse).
Backs: Jean-Marc Doussain (Toulouse), Maxime Machenaud (Racing-Métro), Francois Trinh-Duc (Montpellier), Mathieu Bastareaud (Toulon), Gaël Fickou (Toulouse), Wesley Fofana (Clermont), Yoann Huget (Toulouse), Maxime Médard (Toulouse), Brice Dulin (Castres).