Defending champions France will look to back up last year’s Grand Slam success in the 2023 Guinness Six Nations, with Fabien Galthié’s depth being tested by injuries.
While the majority of his first-choice side are available, Galthié has been forced to deal with a few notable absences from his matchday 23, while others are included as they come back from injury.
In all, he has called on eight uncapped players in his squad, with at least one debut seemingly guaranteed for the opening game in Italy on February 5.
So as Les Bleus aim to extend their winning streak beyond the current 13, what are the main takeaways from Galthié’s squad?
Three men who started regularly for the 2022 Grand Slam are missing this time around, Jonathan Danty ruled out with a knee injury, Cameron Woki suffering from a fracture in his wrist and Gabin Villière still on the comeback trail from an ankle problem.
Add in Peato Mauvaka, Jean-Baptiste Gros and Maxime Lucu, and that is six players who were firmly established in France’s matchday 23 who are all missing.
The good news for Galthié is that over the past three years, France have regularly played Tests without some of their front-line players, whether that was during the Autumn Nations Cup in 2020 or more recently on summer tours to Australia and Japan.
As a result, they have been able to give plenty of players international experience and should still be able to put out a strong side in the opening fixture in Rome.
Big calls in back five of the scrum
France welcome back Paul Willemse but have now lost his second-row partner Cameron Woki for the whole of the Championship.
That leaves an interesting dilemma for Galthié, with Thibaud Flament seeming like the obvious replacement in the No.4 jersey.
Flament has been out of action for club side Toulouse however, even if he should be back this weekend.
The situation is complicated by the fact that François Cros’ return from injury leaves France with four back-rowers for three starting spots.
Cros, Anthony Jelonch and Grégory Alldritt were the go-to trio last year, but the return to fitness of Charles Ollivon adds another contender. With Cros having missed so much time, it would seem as though he might be eased back in with France sticking with the back row that started in the Autumn Nations Series.
However, France have already converted Woki from the back row to lock, and with Jelonch having been used in the second row by Toulouse this year, and Ollivon certainly having the height to do so, will Galthié be tempted to try the same trick again?
The returning Yacouba Camara is another back-rower who has shown a propensity for slotting into the front five and his return to the fold may be a consequence of that.
Backing up Dupont
Of the eight uncapped players in the squad, the one area where we are almost certain of seeing a debut is at scrum-half, where injuries to Lucu and Baptiste Couilloud have meant there are two new faces alongside Antoine Dupont.
Léo Coly was France’s scrum-half when they won the Under-20s world title in 2019, while Nolann Le Garrec (pictured) is still only 20, having become Racing 92’s first-choice No.9 while still a teenager.
With a World Cup coming up at the end of the year, it is a great opportunity for one of the two to push for a squad place behind the France skipper.
The Moefana question
Over the past 12 months, Yoram Moefana has been the answer every time Galthié has found himself without either a first-choice centre or winger.
Now, with Danty and Villière both injured, the question is whether he will start in the midfield or out wide.
The most logical solution would seem to be putting Moefana alongside Gaël Fickou and using Matthis Lebel on the wing.
Other than Lebel, there could be an opportunity for Ethan Dumortier, the Top 14’s top try-scorer, or even Romain Buros, the Bordeaux-Bègles full-back or winger, who is reportedly highly-rated by the France coaches.
The alternative would be to keep Moefana on the wing, where he played in the Autumn Nations Series, and either go for a like-for-like replacement for Danty with powerful Stade Français centre Julien Delbouis, or move Fickou to inside centre to include Pierre-Louis Barassi or teenager Émilien Gailleton (pictured).
Much will be revealed when that first team is announced to face Italy, but Galthié has plenty of intriguing decisions to make.