State of the Nation: France

France fans must have had a sense of déjà-vu after watching South Africa win a semi-final and then a final at the World Cup by a single point, having seen their own hopes of global glory end by the barest of margins.

France fans must have had a sense of déjà-vu after watching South Africa win a semi-final and then a final at the World Cup by a single point, having seen their own hopes of global glory end by the barest of margins.

Les Bleus went into their home World Cup with huge expectations, and after an opening win over the All Blacks, were denied by the Springboks 29-28 in an epic quarter-final.

With a young squad, who already have a Grand Slam under their belts, this France team should be able to kick on once they have got over the disappointment of falling just short.

And with an opening fixture in the 2024 Guinness Six Nations against Ireland in Marseille, they will have to hit the ground running.

World Cup performance

Despite a nervy start against New Zealand – conceding a try after just two minutes – France bounced back to hand the All Blacks a first-ever group stage defeat, beating them 27-13 at the Stade de France.

That was followed by wins over Uruguay, 27-12, and Namibia, 96-0, a record victory that was overshadowed by the facial fracture suffered by skipper Antoine Dupont.

He missed the 60-7 win over Italy that clinched top spot in the group and set up a quarter-final date with South Africa.

That clash will go down as one of the greatest games in World Cup history, with the first 40 minutes simply sensational as each team ran in three tries.

France led 22-19 at half-time, but Eben Etzebeth’s try ended up helping South Africa sneak through by a single point, despite two tries from Cyril Baille and another for the outstanding Peato Mauvaka for Les Bleus.

Standout performers

With six tries in four games, Damian Penaud continued the rich vein of form that has seen him finish as the top try-scorer in each of the last two Guinness Six Nations.

Dupont was also as good as ever in the games he did play, while Matthieu Jalibert stepped up in the absence of the injured Romain Ntamack.

Perhaps the most impressive performer of all though, was Mauvaka, who took over as first-choice hooker after Julien Marchand was forced off with injury 12 minutes into the opener.

Dynamic around the pitch and rock-solid in the set-piece, his performance against South Africa in the quarter-final was exceptional.

Departing players

In the aftermath of the defeat to South Africa, it was confirmed that Uini Atonio and Romain Taofifénua have played their final games for Les Bleus.

The former, who notched a first Test try on Super Saturday against Wales earlier this year, will leave some huge boots to fill, both literally and metaphorically.

Other than those two, it is a very young squad so there is no reason to suggest anyone else will drop out of the reckoning, although there is a decision to be taken over Dupont, who is keen to play sevens for France at the Paris Olympics and might be absent to get up to speed with a different format. Ntamack is also still absent with the knee injury that ruled him out of the tournament.

Potential call-ups

While the majority of the squad who were at the World Cup will be back, there will be a few new faces called in by Fabien Galthié.

Centre Émilien Gailleton made his debut in the World Cup warm-ups before missing the final cut, but if he maintains the form that saw him finish last season as the Top 14’s top try-scorer, he has every shot of coming back into contention.

In terms of total newcomers, Toulouse second row Emmanuel Meafou is now eligible after completing his five-year residency and seems a like-for-like replacement for Taofifénua.

And should Dupont be unavailable, there are a pair of young scrum-half options who will be pushing for a chance. Nolann Le Garrec was an unused replacement against Italy in the 2023 Championship and has started the season on fire with Racing 92. Meanwhile Baptiste Jauneau was outstanding for France Under-20s as they claimed the world title in South Africa in the summer and has already established himself as first choice at Clermont.

Others from that side who could come into contention soon include second row Posolo Tuilagi and flanker Lenni Nouchi, while Racing 92 tighthead prop Thomas Laclayat earned a first cap in the World Cup warm-ups and may be one of the contenders to replace Atonio.

Guinness Six Nations prospects

Having won nine out of ten matches in the Guinness Six Nations over the last two years, France will enter 2024 with ambitions of winning the title once again.

We will get a good idea of how strong their challenge is very quickly, hosting defending champions Ireland in Marseille on the opening Friday night.

It is a ground which provides an electric atmosphere and that first game should be a cracker.

A trip to Edinburgh in Round 2 will not be easy, Scotland have pushed France as hard as anyone in the Galthié era.

Round 3 will see a return to France, with this time Lille playing host to a clash with Italy, before a trip to Principality Stadium where Les Bleus will be seeking a third straight win in Cardiff.

If all that goes to plan, then a final day meeting with England will bring back happy memories for France, who clinched the Slam in a Crunch two years ago, albeit in Paris rather than Lyon, where this year’s Super Saturday encounter will take place.

2024 Guinness Six Nations fixtures

February 2: France v Ireland, Stade Vélodrome, Marseille, Kick-off 9pm (local time) February 10: Scotland v France, Scottish Gas Murrayfield, Kick-off 2:15pm February 25: France v Italy, Stade Pierre-Mauroy, Lille, Kick-off 4pm (local time) March 10: Wales v France, Principality Stadium, Kick-off 3pm March 16: France v England, Parc Olympique Lyonnais, Lyon, Kick-off 9pm (local time)