Rugby: Dismal year for France

Les Bleus ended 2013 with a 19-10 home defeat by South Africa, their eighth of the year.

FRANCE, Saint-Denis : (from L) France's lock Pascal Pape, left wing Yohan Huget, N8 Damine Chouly and captain Thierry Dusautoir react during during the international rugby union test match between France and South Africa at the Stade de France in Saint-Denis near Paris on November 23, 2013. South Africa won 19-10. AFP PHOTO / FRANCK FIFE

PARIS - At the end of a miserable year and just over two months before their Six Nations opener against England, France know exactly where they stand among the world's top rugby nations.

Les Bleus ended 2013 with a 19-10 home defeat by South Africa, their eighth of the year, having also lost three Six Nations games and four tests in a row to world champions New Zealand.

Against the All Blacks this month and the Springboks on Saturday, Philippe Saint-Andre's men competed on equal terms but came up just short.

Slightly inferior physically, they also paid for not maintaining their focus for the entire game and for failing to score during periods of domination.

"After each game we realise there is an extra layer to add," captain Thierry Dusautoir told reporters after the South Africa defeat.

The loss followed a 26-19 defeat by New Zealand and a 38-18 victory over Tonga, only France's second win of the year.

"We had some physical problems against Tonga but we pulled through, this time we did not," centre Mathieu Bastareaud said.

"We're not far from them (New Zealand and South Africa) but we're the fifth nation in the world and we're in our place. When we play the best teams we come up just short," manager Philippe Saint-Andre said.

"There is still a sum of details that separate us from the best teams in the world," forwards coach Yannick Bru told reporters.

Behind the three southern hemisphere big guns and England, whom they face at the Stade de France on Feb. 1, that is.

HALFBACK COMBINATIONS

Les Bleus, however, remain upbeat.

"Hard work will eventually pay off, we're sure of that," said fullback Brice Dulin, whose repeated darts shook the South Africa defence.

"We will not regret all the efforts and the tough moments.

"Are we feeling powerless? No, because we see that we manage to pierce through and to create chances. We just need to correct the little mistakes and stop giving the ball away -- because that is what gives them points and makes them win the matches.

Due to players' club commitments, France will have little time to prepare for the test against England, who are third in the world rankings.

"England are ahead of us and they're not there by chance," said Dulin. "They are sure of their strengths, they know how to win important matches."

France, however, have reasons to be optimistic because the November series allowed a few newcomers to start blooming at the highest level, with the likes of wing Sofiane Guitoune and prop Rabah Slimani showing they have what it takes to be part of the squad.

Saint-Andre, who has used 10 different halfback combinations since taking over from Marc Lievremont after the 2011 World Cup final, could stick to Morgan Parra and Remi Tales after an encouraging series.

"(Scrumhalf) Parra has over 50 caps so we knew what he was capable of," Saint-Andre said. "They've learnt a lot.

"I think Remi's kicking game has been improving and he has been showing he meets all the requirements to play at the highest level."

South Africa coach Heyneke Meyer confirmed that France remain formidable opponents.

"France is a very very difficult team to play against. They're physical, scrum well, when they're on a roll they can punish any team," he said.