Can France, exhausted and without Dupont, recover from World Cup heartache?

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“We’d be fooling ourselves if we didn’t talk about it,” William Servat admitted. The France forwards coach was the first to speak to the press as Six Nations preparations began last week. Inevitably, he was soon asked about the World Cup quarter-final defeat to South Africa and how the team would respond.

Three and a half months later, the players have now come to terms with the painful early exit on home soil, Servat said. “We have to use this frustration as a way to prepare for the game against Ireland,” the former hooker added after questioning the squad about their return to the Marcoussis training center for the Six Nations.

Related: France vs Ireland a tempting hors d’oeuvres for a spectacular Six Nations | Robert Kitson

At the start of this week, Thomas Ramos insisted that the return to action with a potential title decider on Friday against Andy Farrell’s side means the team will have no time to falter. The versatile full-back, who was recently promoted to the six-player ‘leadership’ group by Fabien Galthié, wants to move on as quickly as possible: “If we beat Ireland and we have a good tournament, maybe people will talk less about the World Cup.”

However, the confrontation with a similarly revanchist side of Ireland is by no means the simplest start to the second part of the Galthié era. The task is made all the more difficult by the prolonged absence of Antoine Dupont.

As the scrum-half prepares to play in the Olympics, the head coach is without his talismanic captain and chief orchestrator. Although he has insisted that Dupont’s sabbatical was planned well in advance, the decision will nevertheless have shortchanged Galthié at a crucial time in his administration.

No French player can match the influence that the 2021 World Player of the Year has built, but several French players will be in the spotlight in his absence. Damian Penaud is closing in on Serge Blanco’s record of 38 tries for Les Bleus. An in-form Matthieu Jalibert will play his first full Six Nations as starting fly-half since 2021 in the absence of Romain Ntamack as he recovers from the injury that kept him out of the World Cup. Gaël Fickou will have a point to prove after a disappointing tournament. Louis Bielle-Biarrey, who burst onto the scene with four tries last autumn, will be hoping to consolidate his place on the wing.

Dupont’s positional replacement will be Maxime Lucu, assisted by Racing 92’s Nolann Le Garrec. The Basque scrum-half was an obvious choice; he was impressively the World Cup substitute for the matches Dupont missed due to his cheek injury and played a central role in Bordeaux’s success this season. His rapport with teammate Jalibert will be a key asset to the French Grand Slam hopes; “We are like an old couple, only without the monotony!”, he told Midi Olympique last week.

More surprising, however, was the choice of Grégory Alldritt as deputy captain. The intuitive choice would have been Charles Olivon, who was given the armband when Galthié first took charge four years ago.

The Scottish roots of 26-year-old Alldritt played a role in the decision. “He understands the Anglo-Saxon mentality and speaks the language,” the head coach noted, adding that the La Rochelle captain is also likely to be part of the 2027 World Cup squad as he is four years younger than Olivon. .

Notably, Alldritt had taken a two-month break in the aftermath of the World Cup to recover both mentally and physically from a difficult schedule. On his return to action, the back row will pick up where he left off with Les Maritimes. As France’s new performance director Nicolas Jeanjean noted last week, Alldritt’s extended break is a first for modern French rugby. the future.”

Dupont isn’t the only notable absentee France will have to replace – all of Ntamack, Thibaud Flament, Melvyn Jaminet and Emmanuel Meafou are sidelined for the start of the tournament, while Anthony Jelonch faces another lengthy layoff after his second cruciate ligament injury. in the space of one year.

Despite significant absences, post-World Cup turnover has not been as drastic as initially predicted; experienced strikers Uini Atonio and Romain Taofifenua have even reversed their decisions to call time on their careers in France. Nearly a third of the players called up this week are over 30, a stark contrast to Galthié’s early selections. Most will have had the “shared experience”, as new coach Laurent Sempéré put it, of the defeat to South Africa.

Galthié and Servat were keen to emphasize a sense of ‘continuity’ in the overall project, even as new staff members have come on board – including two ‘mental coaches’ who come in at the start of the week to talk to the players. . For Sempéré, who is in charge of the attackers alongside Servat, it is important to look at the bigger picture: “We should not separate the World Cup from the four years that preceded it.”

Initially, Bordeaux center Nicolas Depoortère was the only member of last summer’s U20 World Cup-winning squad to step up to the senior squad for this Six Nations championship. Last Thursday’s session then saw a group of five ‘high-potential’ players called up for the day, including Perpignan’s newest Tuilagi – Posolo. The day-long call-ups, part of the FFR and Top 14’s agreement on player releases, are the chance for the new generation to claim their place in future squads.

With questions over his eligibility seemingly cleared up, Tuilagi did just that during last week’s session, which was attended by his father, Henry, the former Samoa international. Posolo, the second-row sensation, has since been included in the wider squad that will prepare for this week’s match against Ireland at Marcoussis.

Les Bleus will nevertheless attack Friday’s match in Marseille with a line-up of relative veterans – this isn’t really the time to throw the new faces in at the deep end. The country is exhausted and no longer has Dupont. The approach for France will be to press on, hoping that October’s disaster will not hamper the momentum built up over the past four years.

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