Expectations are low for France at the World Cup in Japan. Poor results in the Six Nations and a chaotic bolstering of the coaching set-up have done little to breed confidence. And the Top 14 clubs have relied on imports from other countries, limiting the opportunities for the country’s rising stars. Yet the long-term outlook is not so gloomy.

It seems that the French Federation (FFR) has accepted the low expectations for the global jamboree later in the year. Indeed, the focus already appears to have switched to the next World Cup. That competition will take place in France and there will be extra pressure on the hosts. Something needs to happen to boost performance in front of a home audience. Moves are afoot.

Preparations are underway to create a team that can compete for the world title four year from now. Last month, the France Under 20s became world champions for a second successive year. Back-to-back successes suggest the system is not as broken as it seems.

Of last year’s victorious squad, Romain Ntamack and Demba Bamba will be in Japan this autumn. By the time France hosts the tournament in four years’ time, others should also have graduated to senior level. Should that happen, it is likely to help Les Bleus contend for the silverware.

And there are measures in place to keep the young talent coming through to the senior ranks. At the recent FFR annual meeting, Serge Simon, the vice-president, announced the introduction of a new international side.

The team will be known as France 23. That, admits Simon, has a double meaning. The aim is to have players in the 20-23 age group involved in the set up. And the objective is to help them develop in order to challenge for places in the squad for the 2023 World Cup.

Simon is concerned that players who star in their younger years often fall by the wayside. The new team is a way to keep working with them to eliminate weaknesses. And it will also fill the gap between age group and senior rugby. It seems like a natural development for the young stars who lifted the global titles in each of the past two seasons.

“There are multiple objectives”, explained Simon. “The first is the desire to keep advancing with the training set-up that is in place.”

“We needed a tool to fill the hole between the Under 20s and the France men’s team”, he added.

Simon believes breakthrough players will challenge for places with performances in games as well as on the training ground. And it means the slow developers will not disappear from view.

“The second objective is to use it as an extra level of training for the full side. What that means is that, in working with the league, we’ll try to arrange get-togethers for this team at the same time as the seniors.”

That will offer high intensity practice games for both squads. It also means the youngsters will be trained in the same style as the full side. That, Simon believes, will ensure continuity in terms of messages and playing styles.

It’s not yet clear which other opposition they will play against. But, the team will be defined as second string. That is likely to mean playing the matches that would traditionally have involved the French Barbarians.

The first squad session for France 23 will coincide with next year’s Six Nations.

Written by Colin Renton

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