Former captain opens up on France's Six Nations chances
SPOTLIGHT: France manager and former captain Raphael Ibanez has laughed off suggestions that Les Bleus are favourites for this season’s Six Nations championship.
The French have not won the Six Nations since their Grand Slam in 2010 but an enterprising performance in 2021, when they were pipped for the title by Wales, and some bristling performances since, including a famous win over the All Blacks, has pushed them centre-stage.
“Some people want to put that label on us. “When I saw that, I thought, ‘Another hit from the Brits!'” a smiling Ibanez told AFP.
“Two years ago, they thought that this team was made up of young kids, not seasoned at the very highest level. Now, they are painting us as the kings of the world!
“None of that is terribly serious. We have a clear idea of what’s going on.”
France’s win over New Zealand was not the only eye-catching victory for the European teams during the Tests, suggesting that 2022 Six Nations could be one of the best contested ever.
“The November internationals revealed that teams from the northern hemisphere are in great shape,” said Ibanez.
“Scotland put 30 points on Australia, England beat the world champions (South Africa), Ireland beat New Zealand a week before we did… All these teams are lined up and in a position to win.”
Ibanez, however, makes no bones about the fact that Fabien Galthie’s team have just one goal.
“The objective is to win,” said the 48-year-old, who captained France to the Grand Slam in 1998 and the World Cup Final in 1999.
“We want to win matches. It’s a goal that all the players share. The November Tests made us aware of the potential of the players. They are talented but, above all, they are extremely ambitious.
“Other teams want to win it too. We have to respect them while being aware of our own strengths. The France XV has a case to put forward.”
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France’s preparations for their opening match against Italy in Paris on February 6 have already been disrupted with five players, including captain Antoine Dupont, testing positive for Covid-19.
Ibanez, however, plays down the effects of the virus, particularly on the skipper.
“I consider this episode only a setback. Everything will depend on his ability to recover from the Covid first. That is the vital thing.
“Italy is still a long way off so we can reasonably assume that he will be fit. I am not overly worried.
“I am convinced that these five players will find their full potential for Italy.”
Dupont and his Toulouse half-back partner Romain Ntamack were among nine players absent when the squad assembled on Sunday “due to positive results in Covid-19”, the French Rugby Federation said in a statement.
A part of France’s preparations will involve spending time in Cassis with the legendary French Foreign Legion in a bid to find “an environment that inspires”, says Ibanez.
“We can see a small symbol there too. The Legion is made up of people who come from completely different backgrounds and who decide one day to serve our country.”
It is a big leap from the comfortable conditions they normally encounter in Nice, but Ibanez insists that the rugby players will not be engaging in military exercises.
“No, there will be nothing military, no non-rugby exercise planned at the moment, simply exchanges on the experience of this corps,” he laughs.
“We still have to deal with certain constraints but, whatever they are, we are ready for anything. Nothing will alter our state of mind, the challenge is to create unity, quickly, in order to be able to hit back hard.”
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