PARIS (Reuters) - France have been getting closer to the top teams recently but only a successful Six Nations campaign will help them approach this year’s World Cup in top condition.
Jacques Brunel’s side came agonizingly close to beating Ireland last March and South Africa last November when they also overpowered Argentina, but even if they felt short-changed, the results showed that there was still a gap to be filled.
France also beat England in the last Six Nations.
“It is a great year for French rugby. I am very excited. I wouldn’t say reassured, I wouldn’t say worried, but excited,” said French federation president Bernard Laporte.
“When you look at the results you see they lost in the last second against Ireland and South Africa. It is true that they also lost to Fiji and it was deserved but they also beat Argentina and England. I’m not saying France are the best but they are not far from the best.
“That is why this Six Nations is exciting and crucial. Either we play a good championship and we go to the World Cup with some certainty, or we play a bad championship and the group will be eaten up by doubts.”
Les Bleus kick off their campaign on Feb. 1 with a home game against Wales, a team they have only beaten once in the last seven years.
They also face tricky trips to Twickenham and the Aviva Stadium to face England and Ireland, who are fourth and second in the world rankings, respectively. France lie in ninth place.
To tackle these challenges, Brunel recalled scrumhalf Morgan Parra and centre Wesley Fofana after the Clermont duo missed the November series through injury.
He also injected fresh blood by picking, in a squad selected for the first two matches, 19-year-old Romain Ntamack, who can play at centre or flyhalf.
Ntamack, the son of former France back Emile, has been a key player in a Toulouse team who lie second in the French Top 14.
“We are going to try and finish building up this squad and find a backbone,” said Brunel.
The coach, however, had to make do with a series of injuries that undoubtedly weakened his group as Cedate Gomes Sa, Rabah Slimani, Camille Chat, Yoann Maestri and most importantly the brilliant wing Teddy Thomas, out for four weeks after picking up a muscle injury earlier this month.
No surprise then that Brunel did not set a specific target.
“I’m going to repeat what I said last year. The Six Nations is a fantastic opportunity. It’s always the same teams participating but every year you wonder who is going to win,” he said.
One certainty, however, is that France have not won the competition since 2010.
Reporting by Julien Pretot; Editing by Christian Radnedge