French facing tough campaign
France go into their opening Six Nations game with Italy on a four-game winning streak, but face a very tough task if they are to win the title.
France go into their opening Six Nations game with Italy on a four-game winning streak, but coach Philippe Saint-Andre says they face a very tough task if they are to win the title.
The 45-year-old admitted last year's Six Nations campaign - his first in charge after filling the vacuum left by Marc Lievremont following the 2011 World Cup final - was "very poor" and he was looking for much better performances this time round.
"This Six Nations will be very tough for in odd years we have three away games," he told AFP in an exclusive interview.
"Italy first up will be tough, then our next away match is against England and the final away trip is in Dublin where the Irish are always a tough challenge."
Saint-Andre, who cut his coaching teeth in England with Gloucester where he had ended his playing career in 1999, said part of the reason for last year's underwhelming fourth-place finish had been down to fatigue from a group of players who had played virtually non-stop for a year.
"Also I implemented changes in our style, such as keeping the ball and running it more, and getting rid of the kick and charge strategy. It was a painful and very poor Six Nations.
"The November Tests we were much much better, especially against Argentina and Australia, though, it was tougher against Samoa. However, we did try to run with the ball and create chances which we need to keep on doing."
Saint-Andre, who has also coached Bourgoin, Sale and Toulon, said his priority now was on blending together a team capable of winning the World Cup after France fell at the final hurdle three times.
While several of the players who played in the 8-7 defeat by the All Blacks in the 2011 World Cup final remain, Saint-Andre admits for most of them last year's Six Nations was their final moment in the international arena.
"If I have a position to fill I will go to the 24-year-olds not the guys who are 32," said the 69-times capped former wing and captain.
"Of course there is a desire for one to win now but our main target is to be very good when the 2015 World Cup begins."
Saint-Andre said that this selection policy was not reducing the importance of the Six Nations, something Lievremont was accused of when he made sweeping changes for every match in his first season.
"It doesn't devalue the Six Nations at all," said Saint-Andre.
"It is still a fantastic tournament. All my friends want to go to the matches, they are asking for tickets to go and see Wales here and the trips to Twickenham and Dublin. It has a unique atmosphere."
The married father of two has no illusions about who is favourite for the tournament.
"I think England will be favourites, especially as they are the first team to beat the All Blacks in two years and are very, very confident.
"But the beauty of the Six Nations is that all the teams have a chance. Wales won the Grand Slam last year but have lost seven on the trot since. They will rouse themselves and be a contender.
"Ireland will still be there in with a chance while both Scotland and Italy have proved that they are capable of beating supposedly better sides, like the Scots did in Australia last summer."
Player to watch
Wesley Fofana: Made his mark in his maiden Six Nations tournament last year but the 25-year-old Clermont centre - who converted from football to rugby aged 14 - is according to Saint-Andre going to explode at this year's edition. "He is powerful and so fast. I may have been fast but I took ages to recover. Fofana recovers without a bother."