France will aim to lift the Webb Ellis Cup for the first time later this year – with Fabien Galthié announcing the 42 men selected to prepare for the World Cup.
With Antoine Dupont leading the side, Les Bleus claimed Grand Slam glory in 2022, before finishing second in the 2023 Guinness Six Nations.
Over the last four years, they have beaten every team they have faced at least once, including the world’s top ten and now the clock is ticking ahead of a World Cup on home soil.
So with a first training camp set for the start of July in Monaco, what are the big decisions facing Galthié and his coaching staff before trimming the squad to 33?
Can the kids crack the final squad?
The inclusion of Emilien Gailleton and Louis Bielle-Biarrey was not much of a shock, given that Under-20s coach Sébastien Calvet had already explained their absence from France’s Under-20s World Cup squad was due to senior commitments.
Both Pau centre Gailleton, who finished as the Top 14’s top try-scorer in his first season of top-flight rugby, and Bordeaux winger or full-back Bielle-Biarrey, were part of wider French squads during the Guinness Six Nations, training with the senior team.
Neither has been capped yet but such has been their progress over the season, it would be a surprise if they did not feature at some point in the Summer Series.
In the midfield, if Gaël Fickou and Jonathan Danty appear to be certain inclusions in the squad, Gailleton’s nose for the try-line, and ability to cover wing, could see him challenge Yoram Moefana and Arthur Vincent with likely two of the three making the final squad.
For Bielle-Biarrey, it may be more complicated. If France go with five back three players, then Damian Penaud, Thomas Ramos and Gabin Villière should all make it, provided the latter proves his fitness after an injury-hit season.
That leaves Ethan Dumortier, a breakthrough performer in the Guinness Six Nations and full-backs Brice Dulin and Melvyn Jaminet, both starters at one point during Galthié’s time in charge, battling Bielle-Biarrey for two spots.
The Bordeaux youngster might be the most comfortable covering both wing and full-back, but would that be enough to sneak in? He would have to show a lot in the training camps and Summer Series matches.
Return of the old-timers
France’s last-gasp defeat to Scotland in the 2021 Guinness Six Nations was the last time two men played for Les Bleus – full-back Brice Dulin and scrum-half Baptiste Serin.
The latter missed the dramatic conclusion, as he was in the sin-bin for a succession of French infringements. The former made the costly mistake at the end in failing to get the ball off the pitch with France in the lead but unable to reach the points difference they needed to overhaul Wales and take the title.
After two years out, both are back in the fold and now battling for a space at the World Cup. Serin started the World Cup cycle as Dupont’s back-up, but will now have to overtake Maxime Lucu, cemented as Galthié’s ideal finisher, or Baptiste Couilloud, arguably the closest in profile to Dupont.
In some ways, Serin is a combination of the two, a game manager who also has the necessary spark if he starts. In a position where the hierarchy is currently firmly in place, he needs to take his Toulon form back to the Test side.
Meanwhile, Dulin has been exceptional for La Rochelle as they came desperately close to winning the double.
His tactical kicking game and ability under the high ball were to the fore as he looks to return to the World Cup stage eight years after playing at the 2015 edition.
Unlike Ramos and Jaminet, his lack of goal-kicking is a disadvantage, but his recall was well-deserved on form and he has previous experience of coming back when his Test career appeared to be over.
The squad features two players who have not played for France in more than a year in Arthur Vincent and Gabin Villière – in fact, Vincent last played internationally in the summer of 2021.
Injuries have restricted them to two and four club appearances this season but both men have done enough to prove they are ready for the demands of a World Cup preparation regime.
Villière’s last France cap came in the Grand Slam decider against England, and if fit, he has a good chance of starting on the wing for the opener against New Zealand.
In the two years since Vincent last played, there has been a lot of movement, but he was a regular in the matchday 23 under Galthié prior to his knee issues and can cover both centre positions and wing – as he did in the 2022 Top 14 final.
While Vincent and Villière are in, two notable omissions were Anthony Jelonch and Sipili Falatea. The Toulouse back-rower tore his anterior cruciate ligament against Scotland in February, but is ahead of schedule in his recovery. If he can prove his fitness, Galthié will be desperate to include him.
Meanwhile, Falatea was established as the preferred option off the bench at tighthead prop, but suffered a knee injury in the Top 14 semi-finals that currently has him side-lined. With four tightheads in the squad, and only Uini Atonio looking assured of a spot, it is one of the positions in greatest flux.
Value of versatility
One common theme for France under Galthié has been the value placed on versatility, whether that is centres shifting to the wing, back rows moving to lock, or even flanker Sekou Macalou playing big minutes in the three-quarters.
That will be even more important in the World Cup, where a 33-man squad will quickly feel very small in case of minor injuries.
It is for that reason that the likes of Gailleton and Bielle-Biarrey will hope to force their way into contention, while Thomas Ramos’ ability to play fly-half at the highest level could mean just two fly-halves make the final squad.
Similarly, there are a number of players in the back five of the scrum who are comfortable moving around, and hooker Peato Mauvaka has even played at flanker and No.8.
That will be worth keeping an eye on during the Summer Series, to see if Galthié has more experiments up his sleeve, particularly with his penchant for benches featuring six forwards and two backs.