By Nghia Mai in Paris
For so long the French national rugby union team was a team feared for its paradoxical combination of Latin flair and Anglo-Saxon rugged physicality.
However, the nine time Grand Slam winners and three-time World Cup finalists had not fared well under the four-year reign of Philippe Saint-Andre. Since 2012, they had reached no higher than fourth in the Six Nations, and were awarded their first ever Wooden Spoon in 2013.
A deserved 62-13 thrashing at the hands of the All Blacks in an embarrassing World Cup quarter-final exit put a nail in the coffin of Saint-Andre’s international coaching career.
His successor Guy Novès, appointed in July last year, is considered rugby’s Sir Alex Ferguson, having led his club Stade Toulousain to 10 domestic championship titles and four European titles over a 22-year career with the club.
One of his many promises after taking over in November was an emphatic return to “champagne rugby” after years of Saint-Andre’s experiments with pragmatic 10-man rugby. His 31-man training squad for the upcoming Six Nations fulfilled part of that promise.
With a significant amount of players announcing their retirement from international rugby in the last couple of months, this is a relatively young squad. Dusautoir is replaced by Toulon hooker Guirado as captain, showing Novès’ long-term vision for the French team, particularly for 2019.
The squad includes eight uncapped players, rewarding deserving form for their respective Top 14 clubs. Two of them were actually nurtured during Novès’ time at Toulouse.
Young flanker Camara could be a natural successor to Dusautoir and scrumhalf Bézy; this French star in the making, whose kicking has been excellent this season, is comparable to Morgan Parra, a World Cup survivor also named in Novès’ squad who would provide much-needed experience.
Most of the young talent in the squad is spread across the forwards pack, with Jefferson Poirot and Camille Chat in the front row, Paul Jedrasiak in the second row, and Kevin Gourdon on the flank.
The absence of Bastareaud is notable in that it demonstrates the change in style Guy Novès is spearheading. This is especially apparent given that he opted for more pace in the centre, with the likes of Fickou (another Toulouse prodigy) and uncapped Danty – the player Bastareaud could have been if he had taken spin classes.
However, Guy Novès has made it clear Bastareaud is not completely omitted and could still be part of his plan.
Within the initial optimism, one area of concern for this squad is the back three, where Guy Noves went for flexibility in players who could cover both wing and fullback, such as Benjamin Fall, Maxime Medard, and Hugo Bonneval. However, the latter two prefer the number 15 jersey. This is a problem for France because the Top 14 is currently dominated by wingers from Fiji, not leaving Noves with many options.
Injury does not help either, with Yoan Huget still out, as well as young talent Teddy Thomas who scored three tries on his Test debut. This is probably why the Fiji-born France Sevens player Virimi Vakatawa was included as the 31st player, a big gamble according to many.
Based on first impressions, this looks like a very exciting squad. The France of old with a twist, it promises plenty of dynamism and enthusiasm. Their first match against Italy on February 6, is a suitable outing for the youngsters.
However, we will have to wait and see whether the proud Gallic rooster will crow again under new management.
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