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Pack of eight: All you need to know about France

The Six Nations will start in less than 48 hours, it’s time we sized up the favourites.

Image: David Davies/PA Wire/Press Association Images

Has yon eejit with the moustache been ousted yet?

Marc Lievremont? Indeed he has. In His place, the former Sale Sharks coach Phillipe Saint-Andre has taken the reins.

Nicknamed ‘the pig’ (apparently an affectionate term in France) Saint-Andre has spent the last tow years throwing money around at Toulon.

He took the south-coast outfit to a Challenge Cup final, which they lost to Cardiff Blues, and a Heineken Cup quarter-final, which they lost to Perpignan. He is a more conservative coach than Lievremont, which presumably means he doesn’t go around slagging off his players in public.

How did they get along last year?

Inconsistent to say the least. They started with a topsy-turvy performance, at home to Scotland, where they appeared to ignore their defensive duties. Typically, they were more tactically astute against Ireland a week later; Morgan Parra kicking us to death from the half way line.

Somehow, they completely fell away after that and failed to cross the try-line against England before inexplicably losing to Italy. Go figure.

Still, they got to the World Cup final.

Emblematic of their lack of focus under Lievremont. No other team in the history of science could go and lose to Tonga en route to a narrow (so narrow we needed to zoom in real close to be sure Stephen Donald had not missed) defeat in the World Cup Final.

Along the way there were tales of revolt against Liveremont and rumour that the players had no choice but to implement their own tactics. France were awful, France were brilliant. Erratic in the extreme, but you couldn’t expect anything less.

Why are they so good?

Les Bleus have got it all, a good line out, a great back row, exciting midfield and a crushing scrum. But what really makes them look a cut above when they are on song is the ball handling.

There are times when the little white pill is simply gliding from palm to palm as the French sail up and across the pitch. When a tackle does come, it feels like an unexpected but minor incovenience and they slowly churn the momentum into action once more.

So who’s the best of a good bunch?

He’s been left on the bench for the opening match against Italy, but Imanol Harinordoquy remains the pre-eminent number eight in the world. His size, strneght and athleticism put him in the top bracket, but – like the team around him – his ball skills that really set him apart.

His captain and man-of-the-match in the World Cup final, Thierry Dusatoir, runs him close for being the best player in the squad; but the Biarritz man shades it for his propensity to come up with crucial tries at vital times.

Are there many changes to the squad we know and love?

Saint-Andre has handed Lionel Beauxis a recall to the squad and included the uncapped trio of Wesley Fofana (who will start) David Atoub and Yoann Maestri.

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To make room for Fofana, the new coach made the surprising choice of omitting Toulouse star, Florian Fritz, and the not so surprising step of over-looking Mathieu Bastareaud.

No doubt the place kicker is decent too?

No doubt, while the rest of the world tends to leave the responsibility with a fly-half, the French just love to be different. Whoever is selected at scrum-half is likely to call shots.

This week it will be Dimitri Yachvili, the experienced Biarritz nine who also started the final in New Zealand. His Partner that day, Morgan Parra, is once again his rival for the jersey after being deployed at number 10 since Les Bleus’ first meeting with New Zealand in September’s World Cup group stage. The mercurial Francois Trinh-Duc is restored to the pivot position.

OK, I’m crossing my fingers now: have they any injury trouble?

Toulouse lock Romain Millo-Chluski was ruled out with a shoulder injury, but was replaced by the veteran, Lionel Nallet, he will start this weekend. Bayonne’s Yoann Huget is banned after missing three drug tests last year.

Aside from that, everything looks rosy in le jardin, I’m afraid.

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About the author:

Sean Farrell

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