France Six Nations Preview: No Antoine Dupont, No Problems For Les Bleus?
France Six Nations Preview: No Antoine Dupont, No Problems For Les Bleus?
Can France turn 2023's devastation in competitions into glory to start 2024 — and can it do it without one of the best players ever to wear its kit?
Can France turn devastation into glory — and can it do it without one of the best players ever to wear its kit?
It’s a reasonable question, but French rugby over the past few years has been another animal unleashed.
Entertaining, fierce and lethal in essentially every position, Les Bleus are a powerhouse on the continent and around the globe, but 2023 was a year that should’ve been one for French rugby to cherish (and for many reasons, it was), but it was dominated by frustration and near misses.
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A new year brings a new set of challenges, however, and for France, the grind toward exorcising past demons starts with the 2024 Six Nations.
Here’s a look at France’s squad and its expectations ahead of the Six Nations, part of FloRugby’s extended coverage of the tournament and the rugby scene across the world:
Last Time Out
It was all oh, so close for France for much of last year, wasn’t it?
Ranked No. 2 in the World Rugby Rankings going into last year’s Six Nations, Les Bleus (after capturing a Grand Slam in 2022) looked to become the first country in the Six Nations era to win back-to-back Grand Slams, knowing top-ranked Ireland likely was going to be the biggest competitor standing in their way of doing it.
And in a pulsating fixture at the Aviva Stadium in Round 2 that lived up to the hype, Ireland got the job done with a 32-19 victory over France and eventually took its own Grand Slam with it after going unbeaten the rest of the way.
The real entree for French rugby last year, however, was the Rugby World Cup the country hosted, and a miss in the Six Nations would've been forgiven by all fans within its borders if Les Bleus could've won a historic first Webb Ellis Cup on home soil. That did not happen.
Though France handed New Zealand the first pool-stage loss in its history and topped Pool A, South Africa shattered French hearts in the quarterfinals in what’s considered now to be one of the greatest matches of rugby union ever played — a 29-28 thriller at the Stade de France — in one of three one-point victories from the Springboks in the knockout rounds en route to their fourth World Cup title.
Les Bleus, meanwhile, watched and wondered what could’ve been.
Gregory Aldritt, No. 8
There are so many names that could be considered key players on the French squad, but Alldritt, who will go into the Six Nations wearing the captain’s armband, enters this year’s competition as France’s leader in a strange new era, making his role in squad cohesion and success crucially important.
France was captained in the World Cup by Antoine Dupont, the Toulouse superstar scrum-half considered by many to be the best rugby player alive today. Les Bleus will not have Dupont for the Six Nations, however, as he has opted to work with, and be a part of, France’s rugby sevens team in preparation for the Summer Olympics in Paris later in the year.
It’s a substantial loss for France’s union team, but the recharged Aldritt — who took an extended break from rugby at La Rochelle following the World Cup — looked just as good as previously remembered upon his return to club level earlier this month, keeping his status of being one of the finest No. 8s in the world well intact.
As he succeeds Dupont and tries his hand at the national team captaincy, the fervent Les Bleus support will expect nothing but the best — and Aldritt, in his role today, arguably is the best.
Potential Breakthrough Star
Louis Bielle-Biarrey, Wing
Considering the past year of rugby Bielle-Biarrey has had for both club and country (being the youngest player in France's history at a World Cup), you tend to forget sometimes that he’s still only 20.
But yes, even after four World Cup tries and a multitude of stellar performances for high-flying Bordeaux-Begles in both the Top 14 and Champions Cup, the 2024 Six Nations may be where Bielle-Biarrey turns into a bonafide superstar on the wing.
He and established name Damian Penaud have been absolutely lighting it up for Les Girondins this season, and though Toulouse wing Matthis Lebel has been on great form for the French giants and deserved a call-up from coach Fabien Galthie, it’s going to next to impossible to separate the two Bordeaux flyers often, considering how much they’ve each ripped elite competition to shreds together already.
Bielle-Biarrey winning the Six Nations’ top try-scorer award for this year is by no means out of the question for an electric player whose ceiling as a professional player looks limitless, and it only helps that he shares two dressing rooms with one of the best in his position in the world and can learn from him that way.
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Ireland, Round 1
Let’s get the fireworks out right away, shall we?
Les Bleus’ trips to Murrayfield (at Scotland in Round 2) and the Millenium Stadium (at Wales in Round 4) won’t be easy, but France-Ireland at the Stade Velodrome in Marseille — featuring the two highest-ranked European teams in the world at the moment — will remain the highlight matchup of the opening weekend and possibly the entire competition itself, simply because a winner of the match would be in great position for a title and/or Grand Slam.
Both teams will be adjusting to life without legends in the ranks, as France (as noted in this article) will be without Dupont, and Ireland without fly-half and all-time leading scorer Johnny Sexton, who retired following the conclusion of the World Cup, leaving there to be a challenge for both squads to find a leader and push through for a big result in what’s sure to be a rabid environment with massive stakes.
Plus, after France’s failure to win a World Cup in front of home support, there’s undoubtedly a point to prove from the home side that it’s here to make up for its miscues and stamp its foot down as the undisputed best rugby nation on the continent. Strap in and enjoy the show for this one.
The objective is crystal-clear for France in this year’s Six Nations — win it. And do it by way of the Grand Slam, preferably.
Stacked to the gills in just about every part of the pitch, Les Bleus are the betting favorite to take the 2024 title for good reason; when in top form (which they have been a lot lately), they’re a well-oiled machine that is capable of beating anyone in the world and looking near-unstoppable while doing it.
Just ask New Zealand, normally untouchable in the World Cup pool stages, or Italy, which will be up against France in Round 3 of this year’s competition for the first time since being battered 60-7 by Galthie and his men in Pool A play at the World Cup.
The Ireland match to kick things off should be an adequate barometer for how the rest of Les Bleus’ tournament will go.
If they make a statement and blow away the Irish in Marseille, the Grand Slam well and truly will be in their sights, if they handle business the rest of the way.
If there’s a shaky performance out of the gates, and France has to rely on others to topple Ireland in the table, we could see a chaotic final few rounds.
Regardless, France’s quality and depth have few equals in the world today, and after a year of heartbreak in 2023, it will push to mark down a standard early that 2024 will be a year of triumph.
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