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From wooden spoon to the title: France looking to pull off remarkable turnaround in 6 Nations

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Wooden spoon one year, title winners the next?

That's the scenario confronting France as the northern hemisphere's finest teams prepare to launch the latest edition of the Six Nations this weekend. And if anyone can swing from one extreme to the other, it's the mercurial Les Bleus.

History, squad strength and the fixture schedule suggest they have a real chance of pulling it off, too.

France has a hulking, imposing set of forwards that can mix it with the best in the world on their day, while behind the scrum they have three of Europe's best line-breakers in Wesley Fofana, the prodigious Gael Fickou and Maxime Medard.

The French have three home games this campaign — although that could end up being as much a curse as a blessing considering the notoriously fickle spectators inside the Stade de France, depending on the outcome of their opener in Paris against England on Saturday.

Most telling of all, however, is that France has won every Six Nations competition that has immediately followed a British and Irish Lions tour. That remarkable statistic even stretches back to the days of the Five Nations, as France swept to the Grand Slam in the 1998 tournament as well.

"When you finish bottom in 2013, it's difficult to say you are favourites in 2014 — Wales and England are still the favourites," France coach Philippe Saint-Andre said. "I just believe in this squad, in these young players."

Understandably, the bookmakers make Wales the team to beat following its title victories in 2012 and '13. But no country has won the competition outright three years in a row since it was founded (as the Home Nations Championship) in 1883, and the Welsh have been at their best in recent years when the odds were against them — not with them.

In fact, it's shaping up to be an open competition, with England's young squad growing in self-belief and experience under Stuart Lancaster and Ireland no doubt desperate to give Brian O'Driscoll — its great centre who retires at the end of the season — the perfect sendoff in his last Six Nations.

Italy won twice in 2013 — against France and Ireland — to highlight its improvement, meaning Scotland could have a battle to avoid the wooden spoon after a creditable third-place finish last year.

The opening fixtures see Wales host Italy and England visit France on Saturday, before Ireland plays Scotland in Dublin on Sunday.

You just never know what you'll get from the French. In October 2011, they reached the World Cup final but since then they've finished fourth and last in the Six Nations.

If the French are to complete a remarkable turnaround and become kings of Europe for the first time since 2010, they'll have to do it without regular captain Thierry Dusautoir — one of the world's best flankers — after he was ruled out for the entire tournament with a ruptured bicep tendon. Top winger Vincent Clerc will also be missing as he's only just returned from a long-term knee injury.

Saint-Andre has also been bemoaning the state of the France's domestic game, with foreign stars often taking the places of home-grown players. It's left selectors with a shortage of options in key areas.

"It's unbelievable but 70 per cent of the wings in the Top 14 are from Tonga, Fiji or New Zealand," Saint-Andre said.

If the French think they have got it bad on the domestic front, how about Wales?

Welsh success internationally in recent years has come in spite of the country's regional teams slipping into disarray and losing most of their best players to the English and French leagues. Almost half of coach Warren Gatland's starting XV against Italy play — or will be playing next season — their club rugby outside Wales.

However, Wales is playing the best rugby in the northern hemisphere at present and provided the backbone of the victorious Lions side in Australia last year.

"We have a chance for three in a row and to create history," Wales captain Sam Warburton said. "It is nice people are saying on the outside that Wales are favourites, but no one is underestimating how tough it will be to win the Six Nations again."

The English shouldn't be discounted, though. A painful 30-3 defeat to Wales cost them not just the title last year but also a Grand Slam, and the wounds will still be raw.

Lancaster is proving an astute, inspirational coach. And although the 2015 World Cup, to be mainly played on English soil, will be his big moment, a Six Nations title would be seen as the stepping stone to success on the world stage next year.

"If you look at the core group it's very experienced, it's been playing together for two seasons," England coach Chris Robshaw said. "We've come a long way. In every tournament we continue to improve."

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