With France having last week named a 31-man training squad ahead of the 2019 Guinness Six Nations there is already plenty of excitement and speculation about their campaign.
Les Bleus of course finished fourth in last year’s Championship – although their three defeats were all by six points or less and they have now had an extra year to work under head coach Jacques Brunel, meaning they’re primed to push higher.
The country’s Top 14 includes some of the strongest clubs in world rugby and the return to top form for much-storied Toulouse has been one of the main talking points of this year’s European Champions Cup.
With five uncapped players in Brunel’s squad and some returning stars also included, we’ve picked three men to look out for this spring.
With no shortage of young talent in the France squad there is rightfully plenty of excitement about seeing some new faces but perhaps the most important inclusion for Brunel is Camille Lopez.
Through injury-enforced changes and team rotation, Matthieu Jalibert, Anthony Belleau, Lionel Beauxis and Francois Trinh-Duc all shared France’s No.10 shirt in last year’s Championship but had Lopez been available it’s probable the Clermont man would’ve been first choice.
The 29-year-old held the shirt for the lion’s share of France’s 2015 and 2017 Championships, scoring 102 points in that process, and returns once again to direct Les Bleus’ course.
France have plenty of talented fly-half options but Lopez is the all-round package and unsurpassed in his ability to control a game – he also has Clermont currently sitting proudly atop the Top 14 standings.
From one playmaker to another, we move on to Romain Ntamack and someone who doesn’t have Lopez’s experience but who looks to have all the talent and youth on his side.
Toulouse have played magnificent rugby this season, both in the Top 14 and in Europe, form which has seen seven of their players called up to Brunel’s squad.
Ntamack – son of the great Emile – in particular appears to represent the future as the talented centre/fly-half becomes the second member of last year’s triumphant World Rugby Under-20 Championship side to make the step up to the senior team, after powerhouse prop Demba Bamba.
At just 19, Ntamack has been slicing defences open at the heart of Toulouse’s midfield for the first half of the season and has shown all the signs of being able to step up to the senior world stage.
A winning mentality is something that can translate from club to international level, so it isn’t a shock that Brunel has called on a hefty Toulouse contingent.
“I think their inclusion is not a surprise to anyone,” explained Brunel. “They are at a high-performance club, which plays well. And that is often to these boys’ advantage.
“We see Romain Ntamack in the role of centre, although he is comfortable at 10 and 12.”
The 2019 Guinness Six Nations could see the return of a Championship star in the shape of France flyer Wesley Fofana.
Missing through injury for the last two campaigns, centres don’t come classier than Fofana – a man who has touched down seven tries in 18 Championship appearances since 2012.
The 30-year-old centre has always made a big impact on Rugby’s Greatest Championship, scoring four scintillating tries in four games in 2012, and could be a key man for France again this year.
One of Lopez’s key partners in crime at Clermont, Fofana has been in strong form in their excellent campaign and most recently dotted down for a double in the win over Northampton Saints at the weekend.