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FRANCE: Stepping stone

Philippe Saint-Andre called last year for an end to the century-old French habit of being brilliant one week and terrible the next.

Philippe Saint-Andre is demanding a winning start against Italy  Photograph: Getty
Philippe Saint-Andre is demanding a winning start against Italy Photograph: Getty

This year he is calling on his Six Nations troops to improve on what he assessed as being a very poor campaign in what was his first tournament in charge.

The 45-year-old former wing and France captain – a committed Anglophile having spent eight out of his 12 1/2 years of club coaching in England – takes his side into the opener against Italy on a four match winning streak and having achieved what he demanded, a top-four seeding for the next World Cup.

However, he says that he is hoping for a better campaign this time round based on a number of factors, not least that the players last year were coming off a seemingly endless schedule that saw them lose narrowly to the All Blacks in the World Cup final.

"We had a very poor Six Nations [they finished fourth] but the players who we mainly relied on were the bulk of the World Cup squad, for they deserved one last big tournament," he said last week. "Also I implemented changes in our style, such as keeping the ball more and running it more. Thus it was a painful Six Nations.

"The November Tests we were much much better, especially against Argentina and Australia, though it was tougher against Samoa. We did try to run with the ball and create chances which we need to keep on doing."

Saint-Andre, who replaced the unpredictable Marc Lievremont following the World Cup final after losing out to him for the national post in 2007, said if the French were to win this year's title it would be against the odds.

"This Six Nations will be very tough for in odd years we have three away games," he said. "Italy first up will be tough, then our next away match is against England and finally in Dublin where the Irish are always a tough challenge."

For the plain-speaking and urbane French coach the Italy match will be crucial.

"I am not looking at anything further than the trip to Rome," he said. "The first match is vital. We go into it having won our last four games and it is very important to get off to a winning start against Italy. It will give us the required confidence.

"However, like Scotland have shown, Italy can beat anyone on their day, they almost beat England in Rome last year and but for Charlie Hodgson's blocking of a kick they would have done.

"They have big, big forwards and they are getting better and better."

Saint-Andre, who unlike Lievremont, has picked an experienced backroom team with Toulouse stalwart Yannick Bru in charge of the forwards and the "Bayonne Express" Patrice Lagisquet the backs coach, said his policy of pursuing his major goal – winning the World Cup –would take precedence in his selection policy.

It has to be said that whilst Lievremont gave an early indication of his fluctuating moods in selecting a whole swathe of different players in his first Six Nations, Saint-Andre has started to put together a squad with rather more logical calm.

"If there is a choice between a 24-year-old and a 32-year-old then I will go for the younger player. Of course you need to win now but our goal is the World Cup in England in 2015," he said.

Saint-Andre acknowledges that the players who played with such gusto in November may not be as fresh and energetic going into the Six Nations – bringing up the age-old problem of club and country.

"We need to look after the players. It's not so much about rest as development. In England they have five weeks off, four for holiday and one for development. In France our guys have four weeks holidays and then it is straight back into friendly matches and then the Top 14 starts."

While Saint-Andre picks England as the favourites, he adds that the glory about the tournament is its unpredictability.

"Our aim is to be better than last year," he said. "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. However, they will rouse themselves for this and will be a contender.

"Ireland will still be there in with a chance, while both Scotland and Italy have proven that they are capable of beating supposedly better sides, like the Scots did in Australia last summer.

"Any team can beat the other on any given day."

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