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Six Nations - Rugby Union: France justifying favourite's tag

Three matches into the championship and things are playing out as expected at the top of the Six Nations table.

France, who started the tournament as favourites for the first time in a decade, have three wins out of three and are odds-on to finish top of the pile.

But, as always with Les Bleus, it's not about how they start but how they finish. And the signs are that this year they're finishing pretty well.

This is the third tournament in which France have been led by head coach Fabien Galthie with no-nonsense Shaun Edwards as defensive coach. Galthie has got rid of so much baggage in the team, giving young players their chance, while Edwards has looked to instill a sense of discipline and structure to the traditionally wayward and mercurial style. And this could be the year their work bears fruit.

In the 2020 Six Nations France also won their first three games and were 8/13 for the title, but lost their next game to Scotland and missed out to England on points difference. They then reached the final of the Autumn Nations Cup that year and were leading England in the final minute before conceding a last-gasp try and losing in extra time.

And in the 2021 Six Nations, they could have claimed the title in the final round with a big win over Scotland, but despite playing against 14 men for the last ten minutes ended up on the losing side when the Scots scored with the clock in the red.

Nonetheless, victory over New Zealand in the autumn set them up as favourites this spring and the pattern of that game suggested they have finally addressed that regular pattern of throwing it all away.

Les Bleus did not concede a single point in the last 20 minutes against the All Blacks,or in the second half of their Six Nations opener against Italy. Against a strong Ireland side next up they allowed just three points in the final 20 minutes, while against Scotland in round three they held out from the 30th minute to the 80th, when Duhan Van der Merwe finally got over their line for a try that was a mere consolation.

Put simply, France look good, but not just in the way they always have with a strong pack, creative playmakers and sharp runners who can attack with pace and flair. They now look solid, efficient, reliable even - and when was the last time we could say that about a French side?

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So who could stop France?

England and Ireland are the only sides with two wins out of three and they meet at Twickenham in round four.

England would have to win that game and then go to Paris and win, probably needing bonus points in both games.

Ireland are narrow favourites to overcome England and then have a home game against the Scots to round off their campaign but have already had their crack at the French so would need help from elsewhere.

Wales could do both nations a favour when they take on France in round four - Les Bleus were victorious in Cardiff on their last visit in 2020 after a run of four straight defeats there but this fixture has traditionally been close-fought.

Title odds of 3/10, with Ireland next at 9/2 and England at 7/1, suggest it's France's to throw away, and they look so much stronger than the side who did just that two years ago.

What's happened to the Home Nations?

Ireland were second-favourites at the outset having also claimed a win over New Zealand in the autumn and may point to the loss of fly-half Johnny Sexton for their crucial round-two defeat in Paris as a decisive factor in their campaign.

England haven't looked convincing in attack and coach Eddie Jones has been frustrated by injuries to key backs, although the arrival of Marcus Smith on the Test stage is a huge plus.

Wales have been hampered by key injuries and can't seem to settle on a playing pattern they are comfortable with, although their victory over Scotland in Cardiff showed there is no shortage of passion and fight, while the Scots have looked impressive at times but outfought at others.

Round four pointers

Ireland have never been favourites at Twickenham but they are a shade of odds-on to edge what is often a hard-fought match.

There have been fewer than 40 points in each of the last six Twickenham meetings, while five of those six have been decided by a margin of one to 12 points, four won by England, two by Ireland.

It's been similarly tight when Wales meet France at the Principality Stadium, where eight of the last 10 encounters Wales have been decided by a margin of one to 12 points.

Les Bleus will be looking to their defence to do a job again in this clash - Wales have scored more than two tries in just one of 11 home Six Nations meetings with France.

Scotland give up a handicap in the high teens for their visit to Rome, the highest they have had to concede, although they did shut out their hosts last time in 2020, winning 17-0.

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