Breakthrough candidates: France

Grand Slam champions France will kick off the defence of their Guinness Six Nations title away in Rome next month, looking to build on a perfect 2022.

Grand Slam champions France will kick off the defence of their Guinness Six Nations title away in Rome next month, looking to build on a perfect 2022.

Les Bleus went ten from ten last year, following up their first Championship success in 12 years by sweeping to victory in a tour of Japan before beating world champions South Africa during a fine Autumn Nations Series campaign.

Currently on a run of 13 straight wins, France are flying high, making it tricky to break into a winning side, particularly with Fabien Galthié’s consistency of selection.

But ahead of their Championship opener, there are still a few candidates who could follow in the footsteps of the likes of Melvyn Jaminet and Thibaud Flament in coming out of nowhere.

Sipili Falatea

France were given a boost with the news that Uini Atonio’s knee injury, suffered on Saturday in club action, is not as serious as had been initially feared.

He is expected to miss about three weeks, so will be touch and go for the start of the Championship, and if he were to miss the opening game, that might open the door for Sipili Falatea.

The Bordeaux-Bègles tighthead prop made his debut on a summer tour of Australia in 2021, and got another shot when France toured Japan last year.

However, it was last autumn that he really came into his own. With Atonio struggling with a knock against South Africa, Falatea had the daunting task of taking on the Springbok bomb squad.

He held his own at scrum-time, and came up with the match-winning try late on, clearly impressing Galthié and his coaching staff.

The test will be in the set-piece, where Falatea needs to show that he can thrive at international level, but he provides real mobility around the park and this could be his chance to emerge as Atonio’s clear back-up.

Sticking with the props, loosehead Reda Wardi could also have been a candidate for a breakthrough after making his debut in that game against the Springboks and playing a major role in La Rochelle’s success over the past couple of seasons.

Ethan Dumortier

No one has scored more tries in the Top 14 this season than Lyon’s Ethan Dumortier, who is up to eight already.

Capable of playing on the wing or in the centres, he has a similar build to current France first choice Damian Penaud.

Used mainly on the wing at club level, Dumortier was called into the France camp last November but has not yet earned a first cap.

However, his finishing this season has catapulted him right into the conversation for a place in the matchday 23, particularly with injuries to Jonathan Danty and the continued absence of Gabin Villière, who is not sure to be back in time for the opening week.

While Toulouse’s Matthis Lebel – a teammate of Dumortier when France won the Under-20s world title in 2019 – is probably next in line on the wing, Dumortier’s performances should earn him a place in the squad at the very least.

Émilien Gailleton

Just behind Dumortier on the try-scoring charts sits Pau centre Émilien Gailleton, who has taken to life in the top flight with aplomb.

Still only 19, the France Under-20s skipper can play inside centre, outside centre and even on the wing but it is in the No.13 jersey that he looks most at home.

With Danty absent for the start of the Guinness Six Nations at the very least, there is a place up for grabs in the centres.

The likelihood is, Yoram Moefana will take that spot, but if Galthié wants to go for a slightly different profile, the tall, gliding frame of Gailleton could be intriguing.

With Gaël Fickou capable of playing in either centre position, Gailleton’s rapid rise could conceivably continue this year.

And the fact that he can play in multiple positions in the backline also increases his chances of cracking a place among the replacements, even if Galthié has a preference for a six-two bench split between forwards and backs.