Six Nations 2019 Championship in focus: France
France v Wales kicks the 2019 Six Nations Championship off on Friday, February 1
By Sky Sports Rugby Union
Last Updated: 28/01/19 6:35am
Will France bounce back to form with a strong Six Nations showing that will worry their World Cup rivals?
France enter this year's Six Nations in ninth place in the World Rugby rankings following a tough year that culminated with a first-ever defeat to Fiji back in November.
That shock loss followed another significant body blow in the autumn internationals when Jacques Brunel's side conspired to snatch defeat from the jaws of victory against South Africa having looked in control as they entered the final minute of the contest.
As a result, a hard-earned victory over Argentina proved to be the only highlight of an end-of-year campaign that followed a bruising tour of New Zealand in the summer where they suffered a 3-0 series defeat during which they notched just four tries.
That run of results leaves them under increasing pressure to remind everyone of their status as a major rugby power but it will not be easy with away trips to highly-fancied Ireland and England awaiting them.
- Six Nations since 2000: Five-time winners (2002, 2004, 2006, 2007, 2010)
- Overall: 17 titles outright (1959, 1961, 1962, 1967, 1968, 1977, 1981, 1987, 1989, 1993, 1997, 1998, 2002, 2004, 2006, 2007, 2010)
- Wales, Stade de France (Paris), Friday, February 1 - 8.00pm (GMT)
- England, Twickenham (London), Sunday February 10 - 3pm (GMT)
- Scotland, Stade de France (Paris), Saturday, February 23 - 2.15pm (GMT)
- Ireland, Aviva Stadium (Dublin), Sunday, March 10 - 3pm (GMT)
- Italy, Stadio Olimpico (Rome), Saturday, March 16 - 12.30pm (GMT)
France finished a distant fourth in last year's Championship with just two wins against Italy and fierce rivals England but it could have been so different.
A last-gasp drop goal from Ireland's Johnny Sexton propelled the eventual champions to a narrow 15-13 victory in a thrilling finale in Paris.
The French also suffered an agonising defeat in Cardiff where two crucial misses from the tee enabled Wales to secure a narrow 14-13 win.
They were also in charge of their clash with Scotland at Murrayfield only for ill-discipline to allow the hosts to come away with a 32-26 win.
History could and perhaps should have recorded their sixth Championship title, and first since 2010, but instead it will be remembered as a Championship of missed opportunities - such are the fine lines in elite sport.
The form of Toulouse and Racing 92 in this season's Heineken Champions Cup against Europe's finest will not have been lost on Brunel - or French fans.
Both have emerged as major contenders for European club rugby's top prize with French internationals Sofiane Guitone, Antoine Dupont and Virimi Vakatawa among those catching the eye.
Uncapped Toulouse full-back Thomas Ramos has also been prolific with the boot in this season's Champions Cup and Top 14 which will surely earn him a taste of international rugby in the coming weeks.
Clermont Auvergne are currently setting the pace in the Top 14 thanks in no small part to the efforts of Damian Penaud while Bordeaux-Begles scrum-half Baptiste Serin is another to have starred with the boot on the domestic stage so far this season.
Brunel has managed just three victories in his 11 games in charge since being appointed which is not the kind of form that is going to worry any of their rivals for the Six Nations crown - or the Rugby World Cup.
Interestingly, Brunel's predecessor Guy Noves also managed just three victories in his last 11 games in charge before the axe fell on him at the end of 2017.
The historic defeat to Fiji on home soil was particularly humiliating for all involved - particularly Brunel.
"It's a big disappointment. It's difficult for me to find anything positive from tonight," admitted the dejected coach after their final November clash.
That kind of result usually prompts drastic action but Brunel survived, perhaps due to the fact that the World Cup is almost upon us.
But French rugby has never been predictable so do not be surprised if Brunel is shown the door if he fails to inspire a swift turnaround in fortunes for himself and his team.
Mathieu Bastareaud. Once again the imposing figure of Bastareaud will loom large over France's squad and the Six Nations.
The 30-year-old centre has long been a key cog in France's armoury with his defence-busting frame the perfect partner for the fast-hands and flair evident elsewhere in the squad.
However, it is his leadership qualities that will arguably be more important as France look to bounce back from one of the lowest points in their history.
Bastareaud wasted no time in laying down the law to his players in the wake of their defeat to Fiji.
"Who do we think we are?" he was heard asking his players in the immediate aftermath of that game.
"We beat Argentina and we think we're something special. We have to start from scratch now and we're at rock bottom. Because we're pathetic, shameful, we have to be aware of that," he added.
France's 31-man Six Nations squad
Forwards (17): Dorian Aldegheri, Gregory Alldritt, Uini Atonio, Demba Bamba, Pierre Bourgarit, Yacouba Camara, Guilhem Guirado (capt), Arthur Iturria, Felix Lambey, Wenceslas Lauret, Bernard Le Roux, Julien Marchand, Louis Picamoles, Jefferson Poirot, Dany Priso, Sebastien Vahaamahina, Paul Willemse
Backs (14): Mathieu Bastareaud, Anthony Belleau, Geoffrey Doumayrou, Antoine Dupont, Gael Fickou, Wesley Fofana, Yoann Huget, Camille Lopez, Maxime Medard, Romain Ntamack, Morgan Parra, Damian Penaud, Thomas Ramos, Baptiste Serin