Fabien Galthie set to put new spin on 2023 France Six Nations squad

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.

Six Nations: How France could solve the problem of no Villiere

Image: Gabin Villiere / Twitter

Winger’s absence has left Les Bleus with a selection issue … in midfield

The injury that has forced winger Gabin Villiere to miss France’s Six Nations match against Scotland has left head coach Fabien Galthie facing a selection conundrum – who does he call to stand in for his star turn of the tournament so far?

The remarkable Villiere has been one of the star Bleus of the opening two weeks of the tournament – his boys’ own back story is now so famous it’s up there with lock Thibault Flament’s dabbling with the 10 shirt in Loughbrough, or centre Yoram Moefana’s rapid rise and rise.

It’s easy to argue that the Toulon winger was better against Ireland than he was against Italy, his ridiculous work rate and phenomenal defensive effort in the 52 minutes he was on the pitch outweighing even the hat-trick he scored in the opener against Azzurri.

Followers of France already knew of his bravery and high-pain threshold – for a man, at least. With France out of wing cover, Villiere played almost all of the second Test against Australia in July on a badly sprained ankle that later required surgery.

Now Galthie has to find a way to replace his die-hard winger, who has made the 11 shirt his own since his debut in November 2020, for the difficult trip to Edinburgh. And it looks, from media reports following Tuesday’s training session at Marcoussis as if he’s chosen a safety-first option.

He has winger-for-winger options in his 42-player extended squad. Toulouse’s Matthis Lebel won his first cap against Georgia in November, but was largely anonymous in a no-better-than adequate win for a France side that was clearly looking ahead to New Zealand. 

And bogey-team Scotland – in the cauldron of Murrayfield, 18 months out from the World Cup when attack coach Laurent Labit has promised ‘less experimenting’ – is unlikely to be an opponent against which Galthie feels he can blood any of the uncapped trio of Racing 92’s Donovan Taofifenua, La Rochelle’s Jules Favre, or Toulon’s Aymeric Luc.

Which inevitably leads to speculation – backed up, apparently, by the game of bibs, that a midfield shift is far more likely.

Defence lynchpin Gael Fickou has gone there, done the wing-switch, before. He’s moved out wide four times under Galthie – including the two Six Nations’ defeats to Scotland – and can do a job there, but it seems unlikely that the staff will want to make more changes than necessary, and keeping their defence captain where he’s most effective makes the most sense. 

A 12-13 Fickou-Virimi Vakatawa partnership – bringing the club and country midfield band back together – is a consideration, despite the latter’s perceived dip in form. But, that falls into the same trap as moving Fickou wide. 

Meanwhile, Jonathan Danty’s recall – after Tani Vili was pulled from the squad following disciplinary issues at his club, Clermont – suggests that he has recovered from the injury that kept him out of the squad for the Ireland match. 

The 21-year-old Moefana did plenty right and nothing wrong at inside centre in Danty’s absence against Ireland at Stade de France, after impressing off the bench against Italy.

He – like Fickou – is a better centre than wing. But he – like Fickou – can do a job out on wide. He’s done it more than once for Bordeaux, for all that his last start – on the other side of the pitch – was on the opening day of the Top 14 season, in September. 

As prediction models go, what bibs a player is wearing four days before a match and two before the squad is announced is not entirely accurate. But Moefana switching to the wing, with Danty-Fickou as the centre partnership and Damian Penaud – another former centre whose switch was questioned at the time but who has proved his doubters very wrong – at the other side of the pitch would make sense as a stop-gap, safety-first, continuity rugby move.

Villiere is expected to be fit again for France’s trip to Cardiff on March 11. With a Six Nations still very much on the cards heading into this week’s Edinburgh encounter, and a shot at a Grand Slam still on, short-term safety first makes the most sense for Les Bleus.

As for elsewhere, the return of tighthead Mohamed Hoauas, following his court appearance over a series of 2014 break-ins in Montpellier, prompted speculation over whether he will make an instant return to the starting line-up. It seems unlikely, even though he has long been a favourite of Galthie’s. Uini Atonio has a tight grip on France’s number three shirt right now, and seems unwilling to let it go.

It’s more likely Hoauas’s return would be off the bench, if it happens against Scotland at all. Which leaves one final question: what bench split could France go for? A six-two would mean – probably – Maxime Lucu and Thomas Ramos would be the sole backs in the replacement contingent. A five-three opens up the possibility of a winger coming on late.

My name is James Harrington. I’m a freelance sports journalist based in France, writing mostly about French club and international rugby. If, after reading this, you feel the urge to commission me for match previews, reviews, features, interviews, live blogs, feel free to contact me

And, please read my weekly French rugby column in The Rugby Paper every Sunday. And I round-up all the weekend’s Top 14 action on the Irish Examiner website on Monday.

France coach Galthie opts for familiar formula as international rugby returns


FRANCE coach Fabien Galthie opted for more of the same in his first team selection in eight months for Saturday’s autumn international series curtain-raiser against Wales.

Officially, the match is a friendly, as Les Bleus prepare for their coronavirus-delayed Six Nations’ showdown with Ireland at Stade de France next weekend.

But there’s nothing friendly about the two coaches’ selections, as Galthie’s opposite number, Wayne Pivac, named an equally strong squad for the closed-door encounter in Saint-Denis. As Galthie said at the press conference to unveil his team: “It’s a Test match. There are no friendly matches.”

Despite a limit of three matches per player during France’s extended six-game autumn bloc, Galthie has resisted the urge to go make wholesale changes.

Cyril Baille, Vincent Rattez and Teddy Thomas in for Jefferson Poirot, who has retired from internationals, the injured Damian Penaud, and Arthur Vincent, who drops to the bench are the only personnel differences from the side that started in March’s defeat against Scotland.

Wales fans will note, maybe with a touch of dread, the side is very similar to the one that won at the Principality in February, with Rattez for Vincent the sole change. And it is the same starting XV that beat England in the tournament’s opening round.

In comparison, there were 11 changes in Galthie’s first Six Nations’ selection compared to France’s previous Tournament iteration under Jacques Brunel against Italy in 2019.

The biggest – indeed, only – surprise was the inclusion of Racing 92 winger Teddy Thomas in the starting XV. He has not been in the best of form for his club this season, and was left out of the squad for the Champions Cup final against Exeter.

But Galthie – whose attack coach, Laurent Labit, knows Thomas as well as anyone, having coached him at Racing – defended the decision to pick him when he spoke to reporters at Marcoussis on Thursday: Teddy … started the [Six Nations] tournament with us, he started against England.

“He was left out of the Champions Cup final with Racing, that’s true, but these are the risks – it’s difficult to be a high-level player [all the time]. He had a very good week with us. When we select someone it’s because of their strengths. He has convinced us this week in training, he’s ready.”

Continuity was a regular watchword in Galthie’s repertoire throughout: “We like continuity, we set out a vision after meeting 90 players. We took the time to share the game-and-life project.

“This team that will start [on Saturday] is the same as the one that started against England, even if there are some changes on the bench. There is a need for consistency.

“When we travelled to Wales, which had more than 700 caps, the local newspapers were talking about children against men … The team must grow, that’s our ambition.

“To have a successful national team, you need continuity. We capped 29 players during the [Six Nations]; 56 players [trained] with us. Moreover we’ve targeted 10 players who are on the way up and seem ready to join the selection.

“The French players must receive the selection as something important and we have to prepare them as well as possible because the international level is important.”

Galthie has made no secret of his plan for continuous development of the France side up to the World Cup in 2023. From the outset, he has discussed his plans as France coach not in years remaining but in terms of matches to be played. Prior to the FFR-LNR agreement on player availability, he was openly hostile to plans by Top 14 clubs to limit the number of internationals their employees could play.

This is the eighth full week of preparations for the 2023 tournament, and the fifth match. By the end of the year, France will be 10 matches into what could easily become known as the Fabien Galthie project – and just about back on track after the tumult of the lockdown months.

And he has been determined to keep faith with his players as much as possible. He used just 29 in the first four matches of the Six Nations, and reports in France suggest that he intends to stick with the same formula for the first three matches of the autumn series – the friendly against Wales, the Six Nations’ match against Italy and the Autumn Nations Cup game against Fiji.

If that theory proves correct, he will then have to pull up a completely new squad for France’s final three games. It’s likely, then, that Matthieu Jalibert and Louis Carbonel – who are both in club action this weekend – will get a short run at 10, for example, with Thomas Ramos and Anthony Bouthier providing cover there for Romain Ntamack in the first three weeks of the end-of-year international period.

Read more: Weekend Top 14 outing likely for two Bordeaux France stars after Wales training camp withdrawals

As well as Fiji, France will face Italy and Scotland in next month’s Autumn Nations Cup. On Thursday, it was announced that the match against Fiji will take place in Vannes, rather than the originally scheduled Saint-Etienne, which has one of the highest rates of coronavirus infection in France.

Under current health regulations in France, the ProD2 side’s ground, Stade de la Rabine, will be able to welcome 5,000 fans.