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Six Nations: France have the ability, but what is their mindset?

Starting today and continuing all week, Peter Bills profiles Ireland’s opponents in the Six Nations. Today: France

Slam it to ’em: France coach Marc Lievremont and his captain Thierry Dusautoir get ready for another Six Nations assault perhaps only the French could endure such a roller-coaster ride in their rugby team’s fortunes these past 12 months.

Grand Slam champions of the Six Nations last March, then hammered 42-17 by South Africa and 41-13 by Argentina on their end-of-season tour, Marc Lievremont’s squad begins the 2011 Six Nations tournament this weekend with another disastrous loss still in the back of their minds.

It is only nine weeks ago that Australia shocked French rugby with their 59-16 annihilation of the French in Paris. That result sent shock waves throughout the game in France.

So now Lievremont must fire his men for a revival in a Six Nations campaign that is being held just seven months before the start of the Rugby World Cup.

If the French fail in this tournament, they will have little hope of heading to the World Cup (and especially a group meeting with New Zealand) in anything approaching a positive frame of mind.

Under Lievremont, France have spluttered unconvincingly, even in victory. They were out-played by England for long periods of the Grand Slam decider last March in Paris, and only just scraped home. But if doubts were raised even then, the defeats by South Africa, Argentina and then Australia later in the year intensified them.

There appear to be conflicting elements at work within the French camp. The players seem unable to take responsibility, to make changes to game plans during matches.

Yet there is plenty of experience in this squad, not least from the likes of the Toulouse group of captain Thierry Dusautoir, William Servat, Yannick Jauzion, Vincent Clerc and Clement Poitrenaud.

France will hope fly half Francois Trinh Duc has matured under the influence of former French coach Fabien Galthie at his club, Montpellier.

And they must hope, too, that the players believe more in the methods of Lievremont than appeared to be the case for long periods of last year.

Potentially, the French have not only the ability to beat most teams but also the capacity to embrace the opportunities offered by the new law interpretations. In backs like Maxime Mermoz and David Marty of Perpignan, Aurelien Rougerie of Clermont Auvergne, Alexis Palisson (Brive) not to mention Maxime Medard and the other Toulouse representatives, pace and quality abounds.

But too often, France seem over-coached, too pre-programmed which is in direct conflict with their off-the-cuff approach of former years.

Whether Lievremont can learn to loosen the reins remains to be seen. But undeniably, if France is to produce back-to-back Grand Slams they are going to have to do it the hard way.

With Ireland in Dublin and England at Twickenham, the French face a difficult fixture programme. They start with Scotland in Paris this Saturday, and although they should win, you can never under-estimate the feisty Scots.

As ever, mostly it will come down to how the French play, how their mindset fits on the day. They are traditionally unpredictable, but the one thing they have to show in this Six Nations is that their rugby is moving forward, and they can adapt properly to the new law interpretations.

Unless they can do that and play once more with their old style fizz and pizzazz, it is hard to see how they can mount a serious challenge for the world crown this September.

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