France play down World Cup 'favourites' tag before Springboks Test

With less than 10 months to go to the Rugby World Cup hosts France welcome holders South Africa to Marseille on Saturday but the home side are refusing the title of tournament "favourites" despite a record 11-match unbeaten run.

Les Bleus' impressive stretch of victories goes back to July 2021 and includes a convincing win over New Zealand and a first Six Nations Grand Slam success in more than a decade.

Head coach Fabien Galthie has turned an under-performing outfit stuck in the middle of inconsistent selection and in-fighting between Top 14 clubs and the federation to second in the world rankings since he took over after the 2019 World Cup.

"The notion of favourites is so subjective," France team manager Raphael Ibanez told reporters this week.

"We leave other nations the statute of favourites.

"They're just words, what's important is action," the former Test hooker added.

Galthie's team have played against and beaten every side in the top 10 in the world over the past three years, apart from the Springboks, who last lost to Les Bleus in 2009.

"South Africa, we love them. The South Africans, this team's story, we've followed it since after the World Cup," Galthie said.

"We have great respect for them, what they do is marvellous, sublime in our opinion," he added.

A big part of the Boks' success in the World Cup was their 'Bomb Squad', six heavy forwards coming off the bench, something which Galthie has attempted to replicate during his tenure.

This weekend, Galthie will hand Montpellier's 121kg lock Bastien Chalureau a debut as a replacement alongside 135kg second-row Romain Taofifenua with just two backs among his substitutes.

"Our wish is to have a solid front five starting and a solid front five to finish the match," Galthie said.

"The question was asked for the 5-3 split but when a guy like Bastien presents himself we felt it was important to open the door and give him a shirt," the former France captain added.

- 'Unlock' France -

Galthie's counterpart Jacques Nienaber has reshuffled his back-three for the game, with 33-year-old Willie le Roux coming in at full-back to deal with the hosts' intelligent kicking game.

"Everybody's trying to unlock France at this stage, but nobody's found the recipe," Nienaber said.

"That's the challenge for us as coaches and players," he added.

Les Bleus' results have been built on playing without the ball, discipline and a steely defence.

During their winning streak, a 1930s record beaten with last weekend's win over Australia, they have conceded more than two tries in a game just twice, against the All Blacks and the only side ranked above them, Ireland.

"They're quite a stingy team, they don't allow teams to get close to their half with their kicking game," Nienaber said.

"When you do get there, they are a really well-organised defensive side," he added.

This week, Nienaber's outfit have licked their wounds after last Saturday's loss in Ireland on the Mediterranean coast, where they will be based before next year's tournament.

They will start the defence of the Webb Ellis trophy in a matter of months at the Stade Velodrome against Scotland and they also face Tonga at the home of France's only Champions League winners during the pool stages.

"We're fortunate to experience for a week what we will experience in the World Cup for up to six weeks," Nienaber said.

"Toulon have world-class facilities.

"It's nice for us to familiarise ourselves with the travel times, the fields, the facilities," he added.

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