France have started their preparations for the Guinness Six Nations this week as Fabien Galthié’s squad look to make it third time lucky in the Championship.
Under the French boss, Les Bleus have finished as runners-up in both 2020 and 2021, while also losing in extra-time in the final of the Autumn Nations Cup.
Not for the first time, Galthié finds himself missing a number of key players from his squad, with positive Covid tests and injury forcing 11 changes to his original 42-man squad.
Among them were seven starters from the resounding win over New Zealand in the Autumn Nations Series, five in the pack, along with the starting half-back pairing of Antoine Dupont and Romain Ntamack.
The good news however, is that provided those players come through with negative tests this week, they could still be in contention for the start of the Championship.
Five of the players to test positive came from Toulouse, with the half-backs joined by prop Cyril Baille and back-rowers François Cros and Anthony Jelonch. As a result, they all remained at their clubs. So when on Tuesday it was revealed that there was just one remaining Covid case at Toulouse, the signs were looking good for some of those players to return to the French squad.
That will likely come after the end of the current training camp in Carpiagne – a week spent with the French foreign legion just outside Marseille.
To accommodate the team, the legionnaires have had to adjust their gym to meet the needs of the rugby team. But the hope for both Galthié and the foreign legion is that the common values of a sense of duty, teamwork, solidarity and bravery, will make the week a fruitful one for both sides.
In the meantime, some of the absent players could feature for Toulouse this weekend, with the main interest surrounding Dupont. The scrum-half has not played any rugby since December 11, a European game in Cardiff, with a knee injury having stalled his progress before this latest Covid bout.
For the World Men’s Player of the year, a Top 14 game against Racing 92 might be just what is needed before that opener against Italy at the Stade de France on February 6.
As mentioned earlier, this is not the first time Galthié has had to cope without a full deck from which to choose. In the Autumn Nations Cup, a limit on the number of matches a player could play meant that it was a largely second-string group that travelled to Twickenham.
And likewise last summer’s tour of Australia took place without the Top 14 finalists, as well as a few other players being rested following a gruelling season.
That has given Galthié the chance to cast his net a little wider, and that was evident in the 11 players called up following these injuries. La Rochelle flanker Paul Boudehent, Lyon prop Jérôme Rey and Mont-de-Marsan scrum-half Léo Coly are the three making their first appearances in a France squad.
The most eye-catching name is certainly the last of those. Coly (above) is following in the footsteps of full-back Melvyn Jaminet in being called up before he has even played in the Top 14. He is currently the top points-scorer and the top try-scorer in Pro D2, and the former France Under-20s scrum-half is now being linked with a host of clubs in the upper echelons of the Top 14.
His emergence should not come as a surprise, he started in France’s second consecutive world crown at age group level in 2019 and has since bided his time in the second flight.
If Dupont returns, and with Maxime Lucu and Baptiste Couilloud both more established, Coly might have to wait for that first cap. But as we saw with Jaminet, first choice now after shining in Australia, Galthié has never been afraid to put his faith in players who have followed differing paths to the top.