France have to look at the reality of the results. Since their Grand Slam of 2010, les Bleus haven’t stopped falling in the rankings of the Six Nations: they came second the following year, fourth in 2012, last in 2013, fourth again in 2014 and 2015, and finally fifth last year.
Since then, England have become the best nation in the north, Ireland have positively turned the page of their monsters’ era (namely Brian O’Driscoll and Paul O’Connell), Wales are still in the mix, Scotland haven’t stopped improving, with tremendous young players placed under Vern Cotter’s guidance, and Italy have finally beaten South Africa with Conor O’Shea.
France, in the meantime, have had a terrible four-year period under Philippe Saint-André. Hope has sparkled again, since Novès has taken over La France. Even if the results haven’t significantly improved, les Bleus have radically changed their way of playing, shifting from predictable rugby to an ambitious and attacking style of play. The secret? Novès has given it: his first task was to rebuild his players’ confidence and exhort them to dare. To dare trying, to dare passing...
Players have received the message, loud and clear. Les Bleus have, within a few months, radically changed their way of play. Way more offensive, way more ambitious, France’s attacking threats have caused great concern to the defence coaches of their opponents.
Last year, France were the Six Nations side with the highest number of clean breaks – but still finished fifth. Captain Guilhem Guirado’s team-mates have crossed the advantage line many times but still not scored enough. This is precisely what has frustrated Novès.
“We cross the advantage line more than others, but we do not score,” said the French coach. “We don’t achieve really, so the ratio is not very good. We have to try to reverse this ratio and we must be killers in some areas so that we can chase wins.
“We evolved during the Six Nations but also in the autumn against Australia and New Zealand. In some ways it was the last two or three metres that we missed. What I mean by killers, I want my players to finish off the moves they’ve started.”
Toulon hooker Guirado feels the same. “We were very frustrated at the results of the last year,” he said. “We had a good start with two wins over Italy and Ireland.
“We were extremely disappointed that we couldn’t finish with a win against England after two defeats against the other teams. We have built our team from that and we hope that the performances we had against the two top teams in Australia and New Zealand will help. This helped us prepare very well for this Six Nations which is going to be a difficult tournament, particularly starting against England who are unbeaten since the start of last year.”
Words are one thing, now France need to win, and quickly. Novès’ men won’t start their tournament in the best place to earn an easy win. At the moment, Twickenham looks like a fortress defended by an England team on a 14-match winning streak.
“Given what they showed in the last two years, England are a monument,” said Novès. “Our challenge is to come close to this great team. Last year they beat us by playing rough and with efficiency, while France produced a lot of play but were less effective.
“Just like New Zealand, England are clinical. They can be on the back foot but they still win. We must be better in finishing off our attacks. Because that is how they beat us. Now the players know what they are capable of. We’re not far from our goal.”
And Novès is right, les Bleus aren’t far from their goal, as their narrow defeats against Australia (25-23) and New Zealand ( 24-19) in November illustrate. Nevertheless, France will have to do without one of their game breakers, centre Wesley Fofana, whose season was ended when he seriously injured his Achilles tendon playing for Clermont.
Usually paired with his team-mate Rémi Lamerat, the two men were forming a solid, dynamic and threatening midfield. France backs coach Jeff Dubois has even described Fofana as the “best French back”.
Gaël Fickou will have the tough task to replace Fofana, and the Toulouse centre has shown some brilliant form since the beginning of the season.
Fickou and Lamerat will be backed up by two power players in Yann David and Mathieu Bastareaud, who earned a recall after Henry Chavancy was injured with Racing 92.
Novès will keep only one centre in his 23-man squad for England, but either David or Bastareaud will offer extra power off the bench. And against Eddie Jones’ armada, a little extra power might be needed.