French flyer Gael Fickou put on a masterclass display in his first test start at centre for over a year.
Following incumbent midfielder Geoffrey Doumayrou’s concussion during last weekend’s loss against South Africa, 24-year-old Fickou was thrust into the No. 12 jersey for Saturday’s clash with Argentina – an opportunity he grabbed with both hands – as he tries to bust his way back into the starting lineup.
2018 has been a tumultuous year for the impressive young talent. After struggling with injury and not being included in head coach Jacques Brunel’s original Six Nations squad, Fickou had made just three starts for France this year before Saturday.
After six years with Top 14 side Toulouse, Fickou joined Stade Francais on a five-year deal starting with their 2018-19 campaign. He has been in scintillating form for his new club and currently leads the competition with seven tries from seven matches – showing the kind of talent that earned him an international debut at the age of 18.
When the aforementioned Doumayrou went down against South Africa last weekend, Brunel called Fickou’s number. When Doumayrou was subsequently ruled out for the following match against Argentina, Brunel backed Fickou’s form and was rewarded handsomely.
“He has started the season very well. He deserves his place,” Brunel said in the lead-up to the match. “We’re aware of Gael’s current form which merits a spot in the team so we’ll take advantage of his form.”
After throwing away a 23-9 lead against South Africa one week earlier, Brunel’s side needed a spark as they tried to snap a five-game skid – and they found one.
Starting at inside centre, Fickou cut the Argentine defence to shreds. He finished an 80-minute shift as one of the best players on the park, notching 58 run metres, a clean break, six defenders beaten and one impressive try assist to outside running mate Teddy Thomas.
The blockbusting performance proved that Fickou holds the key to unlocking France’s attacking potential, and that he deserves a place in the starting side.
With his first touch he drew two defenders and sent Maxime Medard through a half-gap before the fullback spilled the ball. Despite the break ending in an error, his impact was clear after just two minutes as he began to chip away at the Puma defence.
Fickou was easily France’s most impressive player with ball in hand, showcasing an uncanny ability to create attacking opportunities out of thin air and put his teammates into space. A knack for turning nothing into something is a trait that only a few of world rugby’s best possess.
The catalyst for a majority of the French attack, Fickou’s early touches laid the foundation for a big bust in the second half that created what would prove to be the deciding try.
After a tightly contested first half and France holding a slim 11-10 lead over an Argentine side that have been punching above their weight all year, the big midfielder brought his side to life with a scything run followed by an incredible longball to put Thomas away for his second try of the match.
#FRAARG #NeFaisonsXV L’exploit de @FickouG ! Le centre tricolore mystifie la défense argentine et adresse une merveille de passe à @TeddyThoms qui s’offre un doublé. Les Bleus reprennent les commandes ??
??Suivez France – Argentine en direct vidéo : https://t.co/EdUUPZizEG pic.twitter.com/nn4uMTBFaO
— France tv sport (@francetvsport) November 17, 2018
What stands out about Fickou’s play style is his ability to dictate the pace of the game and freeze defenders in their tracks. On several occasions he went from being flat-footed to weaving through several defenders, catching the Argentine defence off guard as he cut through the line.
His ability as a distributor – showcased with his cutout to Thomas – and threat as an offloader in the tackle gives him more than one dimension to work with. He also showcased his kicking game against Argentina, testing the goal line defence with a grubber for Thomas that was inches from being regathered.
His work off the ball, notably in the build-up to Thomas’ first try, cannot be understated either. After Yoann Huget broke the line from a lineout strike play, Fickou ran a line on Huget’s inside shoulder, drawing in an extra defender and helping to create a two-on-one for Benjamin Fall and try-scorer Teddy Thomas.
His per-game numbers in a French shirt this season make an impressive case for his continued inclusion ahead of Doumayrou.
In eight matches, Fickou is carving off an impressive 13.4 metres per carry and is a threat to offload and break the line each outing.
His defensive numbers are also sound, tackling at an 87% clip with 26 made from 30 attempts. Doumayrou – often picked on the merits of his defence – is tackling at 88%, with a slightly larger sample size of 52 makes from 59 attempts.
A string of performances like the one he had against Argentina should cement the midfielder back in Brunel’s starting lineup for the foreseeable future – a place many hoped he would be after his debut in 2013.
Still just 24 years old and already a 40-test veteran, Fickou still has plenty left to give French rugby and may have one final audition in 2018 as the Rugby World Cup nears.
After being in and out of the French squad for the better part of five years – but producing magic when given the chance – it’s a guarantee that he will make the most of another opportunity if it is presented.
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