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.

Grand Slam Saturday: The result of 12 years of change in French rugby

France had to win the 2022 Six Nations, preferably with a Grand Slam, to confirm they really are back. They did. Here’s the story of the years of backroom and boardroom system change that has – finally – taken Les Bleus out of the rugby doldrums.

FABIEN Galthie was quick to pull all levels of the game in France into the Grand Slam celebrations after the 25-13 victory over England on Saturday night.

“This Grand Slam is a victory for the 1,900 clubs of French rugby,” he said, as Stade de France celebrated. This wasn’t mere lip-service. Nor was it the first time the management of France’s senior men’s squad had mentioned the club game during this Six Nations. 

In the squad selection announcement for the decisive final game against England, both Galthie and team manager Raphael Ibanez made pointed references to the domestic game.

Ibanez, opening the press conference, said: “We want to gather French rugby around the French XV,” he said. “I would like to thank the clubs, the presidents and their respective managers, because we have just lived through eight weeks of competition, and it has been a time of constant exchange with the players, the clubs. 

“If, today, we can present you with a competitive team for this match against England, it’s simply because French rugby understands this collective project.”

And Galthie, asked whether a Grand Slam shot was ‘always’ the goal for the Championship, answered: “Yes, we wanted to be in this position and we did everything to be there.

“It didn’t start at the first gathering in Carpiagne, it started long before. Competitions are won while they are not being played – in everything we did between November and December, with clubs, with club managers and players that allowed us to be in this position today.”

Work for this particular Six Nations may have started in November and December, but it was built on efforts to save French rugby dating back much further – almost back to the last time France lifted the title, in 2010.

Thierry Dusautoir noted in his post-match column in L’Equipe: “I don’t think we can draw parallels with the 2010 generation to which I belonged, because it’s not the same story or the same dynamic. Our team won, but with less serenity and control.”

Back then, France won the Grand Slam almost despite, rather than with, the clubs – who held the upper hand over the union because of the financial power of domestic game, driven by wealthy clubs importing stars from overseas.

So, change started with JIFF regulations. In a recent Rugby Union Daily podcast, Brive president Simon Gillham said clubs had “realised there were far too many people playing in French top divisions who were not qualified to play for France”.

The rules are complicated and, as Gillham pointed out, don’t mean that JIFF-qualified players automatically play for France. But the majority of those who go through age-grade rugby and academies to knock on the door of the professional game are French.

“To be very honest,” Gillham added, “I was against the system … but I think it’s been absolutely brilliant for French rugby. I think today, you’ve got third-, fourth-choice French scrum-halves who would probably be the number one in any other country in the Six Nations. 

“There’s a strength in depth today in French rugby – you could put out a second, almost third French team and they’d give everybody in the Six Nations a good game.”

As a coach, Galthie has been fortunate in more ways than one. He took charge at a genuine inflexion point, when a golden generation of young players from the world under-20 championship-winning sides of 2018 and 2019 were ready to take the next step in the senior men’s game. 

Four years earlier, Bernard Laporte had won a contentious FFR presidential election ballot with a populist manifesto that promised to “give power back to the amateur clubs”. 

He had two key aims: win hosting rights for the 2023 World Cup, and revitalise the men’s France side – a team he has repeatedly described as the ‘shop window’ for rugby in France. 

Galthie may always have been on Laporte’s mind as a long term coach – the pair go back a long way – “For 20 years, my destiny has been linked to Bernard’s – a very strong bond exists between us,” the head coach said ahead of the president’s hard-fought re-election in 2020

But he wasn’t necessarily first-choice. The president looked overseas after sacking Guy Noves and installing loyal Jacques Brunel as a caretaker – Warren Gatland and Joe Schmidt were linked to the post – while Galthie was tied into an ultimately aborted deal at Toulon. But a referendum of the newly empowered amateur clubs put paid to the overseas’ coach plan.

In the meantime, Galthie and Toulon had parted company after just one season. He was available; the job was coming open. The stars aligned.

So Galthie was named the next head coach of France in April 2019, to take over from Brunel after the World Cup in Japan. By early May he was part of the World Cup set-up, as an assistant to Brunel, alongside Laurent Labit and S&C coach Thibault Giroud, who had already agreed to join his coaching staff.

The rest of the future coaching staff – larger than any of France’s previous groups – was already almost confirmed. Shaun Edwards was on board. He would later say his decision was helped by the fact that ‘France really wanted me’. 

It would be easy to round this off here with a glib ‘the rest is history’ line. But that wouldn’t be true. Professional rugby – the source of all the players – needed convincing. Laporte had the World Cup. Galthie needed the players to make sure the home nation’s efforts weren’t embarrassing.

Back to Grand Slam Saturday. “The France team is the showcase of French rugby, it’s obvious,” Laporte said again, and welcomed, “the intelligence of the leaders of the LNR and the clubs”.

“This excellent dynamic of the Blues is due to a collective desire to move forward together,” added LNR president Rene Bouscatel.

Both Laporte and Bouscatel were on the pitch for the presentation of the Six Nations’ trophy.

The image, captured by numerous photographers and TV cameras won’t win any awards – it’s a picture of a group of mostly white, mostly middle-aged, men standing on grass, applauding. But it was a notable tableau, one that wouldn’t have been seen a few years ago in the internecine rugby war years in France.

Never-ending arguments over player release needed to be resolved. Galthie and Ibanez wanted to be able to select 42 players per international, 11 more than any preceding coach had been permitted. 

Negotiations were strong, rising to heated, if reports are accurate. The clubs weren’t willing to release so many players for so long. Laporte, it is claimed, threatened to use his authority as union president to bar any player not released from playing for 10 days.

In the end, for an annual payment of nearly €2million from the FFR, the clubs relented. It hasn’t all gone to plan – the three-match-per-player selection fudge for the hastily arranged Autumn International Cup in 2020 were due to a flare-up between union and league.

Now, may be the time for that ‘the rest is history line’. France won a first Six Nations in a dozen years; they are ranked second in the world and, right now, they’re on the rise. The battle between club and country is in a period of ceasefire – it may even be over for as long as the union-friendly Bouscatel is president of the LNR.

The rest has been done on the pitch, the result of a conjunction of undeniable playing talent and smart, co-ordinated coaching. He’s won 20 of 26 matches in charge – a success rate of nearly 77 percent. Of those matches France have lost since 2020, five have been within a score and the result only decided in the closing minutes.

The head coach has been offered a contract extension beyond the 2027 World Cup – and this time, according to Laporte, he will have sole say in selecting his coaching staff. 

“He is the right person, in the right place,” Laporte told Midi Olympique this week, confirming reports that he was to offer Galthie a long-term extension. “At the beginning of his mandate, I built with him because we were in a hurry: building a new staff, integrating Shaun Edwards, choosing names with him and Raphael Ibanez. 

“Putting the church back in the centre of the village was to make the French team a benchmark again and for that, the best in their field was needed. Servat for the scrum, Ghezal for the touch, Giroud for the performance cell, Labit in the three-quarters… I did it with him. 

“From now on, I leave the hand to him for the continuation. He doesn’t need me anymore.”

For now, a lot of the French rugby garden is looking very rosy indeed. It would be nice if that lasted a while.

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.