France head into this Six Nations as the toughest challenge to England’s title.
They lost last year’s crown on points difference after giving England the opportunity to claim a bonus point in the last minute of their opening game in Paris.
France rose from the ashes of a lost decade of international rugby, after just one third-place Six Nations finish since 2012.
Fabien Galthié took over as head coach last year, bringing with him a reputation as a shrewd tactician and an intimidating motivator to blood a very young squad.
His first year in charge was a success as France only lost two of their nine games in 2020.
He has developed a playing style worthy of the international game, marked by suffocating defence and attacking structures built to make the most of the talent at his disposal.
However, in the autumn France were hindered by a limit to the number of games their players could play.
This meant in the Autumn Nations Cup final they faced England with their third and fourth-choice players but still forced the game to extra-time before Owen Farrell sealed it for England.
There are only two players over 30 in the squad for Saturday’s game against Italy, and defensive captain Gael Fickou is the only player with at least 50 caps.
This doesn’t hinder them as France are led by their youngsters. Scrum-half Antoine Dupont won player of the tournament last year and he is the basis for France’s attacking threat.
He is usually partnered by his Toulouse teammate Romain Ntamack at fly-half, but Ntamack will miss the start of the tournament due to a jaw injury and centre Virimi Vakatawa will also be absent with a knee injury.
At 21, Ntamack has shown the maturity of a veteran fly-half, and Bordeaux’s 22-year-old wonderboy Matthieu Jalibert who showed promise in the autumn is set to fill in.
Former Wales defence coach Shaun Edwards has converted Les Bleus into a formidable defensive side with his trademark aggression.
This shift in mentality is led by lock Bernard Le Roux and La Rochelle’s young No. 8 Grégory Alldritt, whose work rate earned him three man-of-the-match awards in last year’s tournament, though he is fighting to be fit this year.
They have three away games on the schedule this year, with a trip to Twickenham on 13 March the jewel in the entire calendar, which could decide the title.
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