No nation has completed back-to-back Grand Slams in the Six Nations era – but that is the France coach’s clearly stated aim
Injuries have taken their toll on key players in Fabien Galthie’s France squad hierarchy, meaning that his first 42-player Six Nations squad list – which is to be released on Tuesday – will have a very different complexion to what we have been used to.
It won’t be quite as dramatic as that first squad revealed before his first Six Nations in charge back in 2020, or the list of players dismissed in the English-language media as ‘third choice’ and ‘an embarrassment’ for the later rounds of that Covid-hit year’s hastily arranged Autumn Nations Cup.
But there will be some notable well-known absences, and a few new names, as Galthie and his France staff set out their World Cup-year stall with high ambitions for the Six Nations.
Galthie has never made any secret of his goal for the French team under his charge. From day one, his ambition was simply to ‘win matches and win trophies’.
And he reiterated the mantra recently. In a recent interview with Rugbyrama, he said the goal for the 2023 Six Nations was to “repeat what we managed to do last year”.
No nation has done back-to-back Grand Slams in the Six Nations era. France were the most recent side to manage it back in the Five Nations days, when Jean-Claude Skrela’s side won all their matches in 1997 and 98.
But the fixture list is against Galthie’s ambition – France open with a banana-skin trip to Rome, and also face away matches against world number one side Ireland and Steve Borthwick’s England.
Twickenham remains the only Six Nations’ fortress not to fall to Galthie’s France – though their win in Dublin was in the cavern of an empty Aviva – this year’s packed house will present a louder challenge. But, Les Bleus today … you could just about believe they could pull off a second Six Nations title in a row, even if an unprecedented back-to-back Grand Slam is more-than-likely off the table.
Or, you could. Galthie and France have major injury concerns heading into the tournament, which means his first 42 is certain to feature a number of new faces.
Midfield is particularly badly hit. Virimi Vakatawa’s health-enforced retirement at the start of the season has, for Galthie, been compounded by injuries to Arthur Vincent and Jonathan Danty – who both have knee ligament damage and will miss the tournament.
In the front row, hookers Peato Mauvaka – an ever-present in the perfect 2022 year – and Pierre Bourgarit are also out for, at least, the opening few matches, as is prop Jean-Baptiste Gros.
Like Bourgarit, tighthead Uini Atonio pulled up with injury in La Rochelle’s recent win over Toulouse. Unlike Bourgarit, he may be available for the training camp at Capbreton, in the Landes department.
Second row availability, meanwhile, has been hit by injuries to Lyon’s Kilian Geraci and Montpellier’s Florian Verhaeghe.
And there are fitness concerns for Damian Penaud, Gabin Villiere, Matthieu Jalibert, Baptiste Couilloud, Yoan Tanga and Francois Cros, who all missed their respective clubs’ recent Champions Cup matches.
It is not all bad news for Galthie and his staff, however, as they look to find the right mix of players to join teamsheet mainstays Antoine Dupont, Romain Ntamack, Julien Marchand, Gregory Alldritt, and Charles Ollivon.
Expect to see the France staff wanting a closer look at Pau’s 19-year-old wonderkid Emilien Gailleton. And the head coach – who recently confirmed he had agreed to stay on until after the 2027 World Cup in Australia – recently namechecked a number of uncapped players he has an eye on – Stade Francais’ Julien Delbouis and Leo Barre, Bordeaux duo Louis Bielle-Biarrey and Romain Buros, Lyon’s Ethan Dumortier, and Toulouse’s man mountain Emmanuel Meafou all got a mention.
In Australian-born Meafou’s case, everything depends on the arrival of his French passport.
Galthie’s first squad list of the World Cup year is also likely to include one or more of Toulouse winger Matthis Lebel, La Rochelle prop Reda Wardi and fly-half team-mate Antoine Hastoy, Montpellier backrow Alexandre Bécognée, Pau’s talented Jordan Joseph.
Joseph is due to return to Racing 92 from extended loan in southwest France at the end of the season – but it has been suggested that he would prefer to stay in the Bearn rather than return to the capital. It is also hinted that Racing may be open to the idea.