Peter Bills: Which French team will turn up to the Six Nations?

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The Independent Online

In little ways on different days, the pressure mounts.

France has not won a Grand Slam in the Six Nations championship for six long years, a point the country's rugby bible 'Midi Olympique' newspaper underlined this week. "Grand chelem obligatoire" screamed a headline. It must induce the kind of expression on the face of the French coach painted so brilliantly by Edvard Munch in his famous work, 'The Scream'.

Six years without the ultimate glory, six years of hope followed by despair..... Six years of frustration, too, for we are talking of a nation richly endowed with talent. It has always been thus. Alas, talent alone is insufficient to land the quirky, tricky, unpredictable Six Nations crown. You require 'cojones', belief, temperament and a healthy dose of sheer bloody mindedness to dig deep when the omens are stacked against you.

In recent years, for a variety of reasons including some of those factors, the French have failed. So will 2010 be any different?

Your view will depend upon which yardstick you judge. Do you assess Marc Lievremont's men on the evidence of their November Test win over South Africa at Toulouse, a night when France's formidable forward pack tore into the Springboks and exposed the world champions' fatigue and, at that time of their year, fragility? If they can repeat, on five separate occasions, such a warrior performance, most teams will quake at the prospect of meeting them in this year's Six Nations.

Or do you judge on the performance against New Zealand at Marseille a few weeks later, when the All Blacks smashed them 39-12, inflicting a 5 tries to nil humiliation? It is true the French were ready and fired up for that one. The early scrums were as brutal as muggings on a London street.

Yet once the All Blacks began to play, to run and attack especially from deep, the French floundered. You tell me which French outfit we shall see in the 2010 Six Nations.

It is my bet that Lievremont, acknowledging the heavy pressure he will face should France fail again, will return to the core of his team that beat the Springboks. That would mean a powerhouse pack with Romain Millo-Chluski, Lionel Nallett and Sebastien Chabal disputing the two lock berths in front of a back row of captain, Thierry Dusautoir, Imanol Harinordoquy and Louis Picamoles. In front of them, William Servat should hook, propped by Fabien Barcella of Biarritz, one of the most destructive loose head scrummagers anywhere in the world, and the Perpignan colossus, Nicolas Mas at tight head.

If fit, this is not a pack with which to trifle. But the problems then begin for Lievremont, especially at half back. Does he continue with Francois Trinh-Duc, badly exposed by New Zealand, at outside half? I suspect so. Who plays inside him? In the absence of the suspended Julien Dupuy, presumably it will be Morgan Parra, despite his lightweight status. Or could Frederic Michalak figure in what many believe is his best position, scrum half?

Then there are the backs, many of whom have had only very moderate seasons thus far. It's hard to make a case for Yannick Jauzion, a player who seems to have lost much of his zip and genius. Maxime Mermoz would be one certainly at centre, were he not injured.

Will Lievremont risk recalling the controversial Mathieu Bastareaud, whose lies about being mugged on tour in New Zealand last year (to cover up an injury caused by his being drunk) created an international incident between the two countries.

But Lievremont will need someone to get over the gain line and offer his back row a target. Bastareaud is no silky, elusive runner but his formidable power, if not his morals, is to be respected.

Lievremont's problem is that so many of the Toulouse back line contingent have disappointed to date. Maxime Medard has gone backwards this season, Cedric Heymans only makes rare starting appearances these days, Jauzion has faded and Florien Fritz has been only OK. Vincent Clerc may claim one of the wing slots but much of the other positions remain up for grabs.

Damien Traille represents yet another conundrum for the French coach. He kicks prodigious distances yet offers little in terms of invention going forward with ball in hand. But then, Lievremont may choose him as a key component of a game plan based upon pragmatism and power. Welding so strong and heavy a forward pack to the likes of Bastareaud and Traille behind the scrum would be a temptation if the French coach sides with conservatism and seeks to grind out the five wins he needs for a Grand Slam.

But even that philosophy cannot be guaranteed. The demanding French rugby public require not just a Grand Slam but a triumph laced with style and adventure. The cat-calls for a drab, kicking dominated French Grand Slam would be almost as loud as those for a seventh season of failure.

And you think you've got problems with the weather...

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