(Reuters) - France will be at their best despite being hit by a series of injuries in the lead-up to their Six Nations preparations, having used the Autumn Nations Cup to give young players a first taste of international test rugby, coach Fabien Galthie said.
France finished last year's championship in second place before narrowly losing to England in the Autumn Nations Cup final having fielded a largely inexperienced team playing some exciting rugby throughout the year.
Following an agreement on players availability between the federation and the league, Galthie had to made 13 changes to his first team for the last two games of the Autumn Nations Cup and the youngsters lived up to the task. They were beaten by England only after extra time.
"The changes we had to make in the autumn allowed us to give some uncapped players a little bit of experience," Galthie told reporters.
"They have been able to get some collective experience with the squad and some taste of international test rugby. And it gave us the opportunity to develop a more performant team. It will now help us to deal with these injuries a little bit better."
France are missing flyhalf Romain Ntamack, scrumhalf Antoine Dupont's favourite partner, through a jaw injury, with fullback Thomas Ramos and wing Virimi Vakatawa having also been ruled out.
"Virimi Vakatawa has a capacity to beat his marker, a power that are impressive but we have other players with different qualities and his absence will not change our way of playing," said Galthie.
In spite of those absences, France are expected to challenge England for the title, which they have not won since 2010.
"I do not particularly feel like we're favourites, it's played by the media. We're preparing for and focusing on our first game against Italy in Rome (on Feb. 6). That's the state of mind we're in right now," said Galthie.
"Are we going to dethrone England? For that we will need to be very, very good, and that's what we're aiming for.
"We hope to do better than last year. The average age is 24 and we have about 10 caps per player. But the team is also one year older than in 2020," Galthie noted.
France have been penalised a lot last year and Galthie said the staff was now focusing on understanding refereeing better.
"We have added (former international referee) Jerome Garces to our staff to deal with our issues with refereeing," he said.
Garces, 47, ended his refereeing career after officiating the 2019 World Cup final.
(Reporting by Julien Pretot; Editing by Christian Radnedge)