In the second pre-tournament team preview, James Harrington looks at the chances of the French, who haven’t even bothered to try to flatter to deceive in recent years – but could now be on the rebound.
France boasts a big, powerful, scrum-loving pack – but, even without Wesley Fofana, those backs should scare the living daylights out of just about any team in the world.
This 21st-century France may – finally – be harking back to the future, but the on-pitch revolution is young, as coach Guy Novès has been busy sorting out the long-standing backroom mess at headquarters in Marcoussis. And now results-led president Bernard Laporte has taken over, there’s a nagging doubt that the joie de jouer that overcame French international rugby in the November internationals may be ditched in favour of a more pragmatic gameplan. Even a new accord between the union and the clubs that has allowed Novès two whole weeks with his squad before the tournament is in Laporte’s sights. You have to really hope that this revolution does not wither and die before it gets a decent run, as Les Bleus were on the fringes of a very French style that could develop into something very special indeed.
The Man in Charge
Novès cannot be entirely sure of his place now that Laporte is the man in charge at the FFR. The pair have never seen eye to eye – and it had been rumoured that Monsieur le President had sounded out Bordeaux’s Rafael Ibanez for Novès’ job – though the Top 14 club’s current form could have put a temporary halt to that ambition. For now, however, following a long lunch with Laporte’s lieutenant Serge Simon, the gnomic Novès is the man in charge – and the accord that Laporte hates has given him a fortnight with his players. For a man who has won more titles than Donald Trump has signed dubious executive orders, that’s plenty of time. Worse still, for the opponents after England, he’s got them for eight consecutive weeks during the length of the tournament.
Player to watch
Rémi Lamerat. Sure, all the clamour will be about likely starting scrum-half Baptiste Serin, who has made quite an impression since his debut in Argentina in the summer, but watch out for the Clermont centre, who combines Bastareaud power with Fofana guile and pace. In fact, until the latter suffered a season-ending injury the French backline looked certain to feature five of the high-flying Top 14 side’s backs – with Camille Lopez, Lamerat, Noa Nakaitaci and Scott Spedding still very much in the coach’s mind. While the loss of Fofana is a blow for France, the prospect of Lamerat and Toulouse’s Gaël Fickou teaming up in midfield is not a partnership that any opponent would fancy facing.
The Big Match
Le Crunch. It’s always Le Crunch. This time, it’s on the opening weekend – and if France catch England napping it could be game over for a second England Grand Slam and that New Zealand record before the tournament really gets under way. By the same token, it would give Les Bleus a real shot in the arm.
Third. It would be France’s highest position since 2011, a year they also – against all odds – reached the World Cup final. But, French fans are daring to believe once again, and if Novès can start delivering results as well as performances … well, that has got to be good for the game.
Forwards: Uini Atonio, Cyril Baille, Mohamed Boughanmi, Damien Chouly, Loann Goujon, Kevin Gourdon, Guilhem Guirado, Arthur Iturria, Julien Le Devedec, Bernard le Roux, Yoann Maestri, Clement Maynadier, Louis Picamoles, Fabien Sanconnie, Baptiste Serin, Rabah Slimani, Christopher Tolofua, Sebastien Vahaamahina.
Backs: Mathieu Bastareaud, Djibril Camara, Yann David, Jean-Marc Doussain, Gael Fickou, Yoann Huget, Remi Lamerat, Camille Lopez, Maxime Machenaud, Noa Nakaitaci, Geoffrey Palis, Scott Spedding, Virimi Vakatawa
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