France look to turn Six Nations table

With the Six Nations event kicking off this weekend, France are looking for a change in fortunes from last time.

    The opening fixtures see Wales host Italy and England visit France on Saturday [Getty Images]
    The opening fixtures see Wales host Italy and England visit France on Saturday [Getty Images]

    Wooden spoon one year, title winners the next?

    That's the scenario confronting France as the northern hemisphere's finest teams prepare to launch the latest edition of the Six Nations this weekend.

    France has a hulking, imposing set of forwards that can mix it with the best in the world on their day, while behind the scrum they have three of Europe's best line-breakers in Wesley Fofana, the prodigious Gael Fickou and Maxime Medard.

    The French have three home games this campaign - although that could end up being as much a curse as a blessing considering the notoriously fickle spectators inside the Stade de France, depending on the outcome of their opener in Paris against England on Saturday.

    When you finish bottom in 2013, it's difficult to say you are favorites in 2014. I just believe in this squad, in these young players.

    Philippe Saint-Andre, France coach

    Most telling of all, however, is that France has won every Six Nations competition that has immediately followed a British and Irish Lions tour.

    "When you finish bottom in 2013, it's difficult to say you are favorites in 2014 - Wales and England are still the favorites,'' France coach Philippe Saint-Andre said.

    "I just believe in this squad, in these young players.''

    It's shaping up to be an open competition, with England's young squad growing in self-belief and experience under Stuart Lancaster and Ireland no doubt desperate to give Brian O'Driscoll - its great centre who retires at the end of the season - the perfect sendoff in his last Six Nations.

    Italy won twice in 2013 - against France and Ireland - to highlight its improvement, meaning Scotland could have a battle to avoid the wooden spoon after a creditable third-place finish last year.

    The opening fixtures see Wales host Italy and England visit France on Saturday, before Ireland plays Scotland in Dublin on Sunday.

    In October 2011, France reached the World Cup final but since then they've finished fourth and last in the Six Nations.

    If the French are to complete a remarkable turnaround and become kings of Europe for the first time since 2010, they'll have to do it without regular captain Thierry Dusautoir - one of the world's best flankers - after he was ruled out for the entire tournament with a ruptured bicep tendon.

    Top winger Vincent Clerc will also be missing as he's only just returned from a long-term knee injury.

    "It's unbelievable but 70 percent of the wings in the Top 14 are from Tonga, Fiji or New Zealand,'' Saint-Andre said.

    Welsh success internationally in recent years has come in spite of the country's regional teams slipping into disarray and losing most of their best players to the English and French leagues. Almost half of coach Warren Gatland's starting XV against Italy play - or will be playing next season - their club rugby outside Wales.

    Wales favourites

    However, Wales is playing the best rugby in the northern hemisphere at present and provided the backbone of the victorious Lions side in Australia last year.

    "We have a chance for three in a row and to create history,'' Wales captain Sam Warburton said. "It is nice people are saying on the outside that Wales are favorites, but no one is underestimating how tough it will be to win the Six Nations again.''

    The English shouldn't be discounted, though. A painful 30-3 defeat to Wales cost them not just the title last year but also a Grand Slam, and the wounds will still be raw.

    Lancaster is proving an astute, inspirational coach. And although the 2015 World Cup, to be mainly played on English soil, will be his big moment, a Six Nations title would be seen as the stepping stone to success on the world stage next year.

    "If you look at the core group it's very experienced, it's been playing together for two seasons,'' England coach Chris Robshaw said. "We've come a long way. In every tournament we continue to improve.''



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