Who knew that when Olivier Magne came out with his criticism of the current generation of French players in the aftermath of Les Bleus’ loss to England at Twickenham, that Jacques Brunel would seemingly concur with that assessment?
The French head coach has rung the changes again this week, and whilst that it is not something unusual in French rugby, it has seen him turn to a number of fresh faces, or at least relatively new faces in new positions.
Teenage prodigy Romain Ntamack made his debut at inside centre against Wales in the Guinness Six Nations opener, before being relegated to the bench against England, and now he lines up at fly-half to take on Scotland in Paris this weekend.
He has been paired with club teammate Antoine Dupont in the half-backs, with the scrum-half proving to be one of the most consistent and influential players at his position over the last 18 months.
Completing the Toulouse triumvirate is Thomas Ramos, with the versatile full-back selected in the 15 jersey, ensuring that, on paper at least, France won’t be exposed at the back by a clever kicking game in the same way that they were at Twickenham.
There are still some unorthodox selections, including the persistence with Damian Penaud on the wing, despite the Clermont man being one of the best centres – ranked second overall on the RPI – in the Top 14, but Gaël Fickou is back in the midfield after a stint out wide and overall the back line feels much more balanced.
It’s unlikely that it was solely Magne’s comments that prompted this switch in selection philosophy, with Morgan Parra’s and Camille Lopez’s criticism of Brunel post-match at Twickenham unlikely doing them any favours. Both players have not only been dropped from the XV, but also the matchday squad, with Baptiste Serin and Anthony Belleau taking up duties on the bench.
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Watch: Brunel and Guirado face the press after the loss to England
Brunel has given the young Toulouse spine the opportunity to impress against Scotland and whilst far from the ideal situation to be thrown into, with France struggling and the home crowd far from enamoured with the team as stands, it’s an attempt to put an important foundation piece of the squad in place.
At just 22, 19 and 23 respectively, Dupont, Ntamack and Ramos have the best part of the next decade together at country and potentially club levels, which can help bring chemistry and cohesion to the French spine, something they often struggle with due in part to rotating selections, but also the lack of preparation time they have together as a group. By opting for the Toulouse trio, Brunel is hoping to minimise that disadvantage.
You don’t need to have a half-back pairing from the same club, with Conor Murray and Jonathan Sexton and Ben Youngs and Owen Farrell performing excellently together, but those are combinations that have been years in the making. Throw in the mix the strong Leinster and Saracens cores to both those national sides and it’s hard to dispute that it’s not a contributary factor to their successes.
No one outside the Stade de France will be expecting miracles from the three Toulouse playmakers on Saturday but a loss or an unconvincing win over an admittedly injury-ravaged Scotland side should not push Brunel’s hand into making further changes. What France need now is consistency and to build the team around certain key individuals.
Jonny Wilkinson’s first two games at fly-half for England were a 76-0 loss to Australia in Brisbane and a 64-22 loss to New Zealand in Dunedin. Imagine if England had thrown Wilkinson to the lions by dropping him following those two games? How might the course of English rugby changed?
Instead, he backed it up with a strong showing in the 1999 Five Nations, including a 21-point effort against a France side boasting Romain’s father, Emile, and kickstarted an international career that would see him go on to win a Rugby World Cup and win 91 caps for England, as well as feature on two British and Irish Lions tours.
Similarly, Brunel needs to show faith in Dupont, Ntamack and Ramos if France are to truly build a side capable of consistently challenging the best teams in the world.
For that decision to move to the next generation of players to come six months out from a Rugby World Cup is unfortunate, but you can’t control when that next crop of players is going to come to the fore.
Ntamack has burst onto the scene over the last year and Ramos’ game has moved to a higher level during that same period. The only one of the three you can really argue should have been more heavily involved over the last couple of seasons is Dupont and in fairness to Brunel, it’s not as if French rugby has had a dearth of effective scrum-halves. Parra, Serin, Maxime Machenaud, Rory Kockott and Sébastien Bézy, French scrum-half stocks have been in fine fettle of late. That said, Dupont is currently the number one-ranked scrum-half in global rugby, according to the RPI.
To use the England example again, Sir Clive Woodward’s side struggled through 1999 RWC growing pains in order to have the success they did in 2003, and if it takes similar for France this year in Japan in order to move forward ahead of a home RWC in 2023, then they need to stay the path, win or lose, with this exciting new trio.
There are other factors for French rugby to address, such as the attritional nature of the Top 14 season, whether their domestic competition provides players with the conditioning needed to succeed at international level and what their coaching staff is going to look like after Japan, with Brunel seemingly on borrowed time no matter what now, but a consistency of selection is a solid start to navigating those dangerous waters.
Everyone in rugby yearns for a French side that can play with the menace and physicality up front and Gallic flair in the back line of yesteryear, and whilst it’s unlikely we’ll see that on Saturday, hopefully this is a watershed moment for French rugby and one which a foundation can be built upon moving forward.
Watch: Philippe Saint-André speaks to The Rugby Pod on France’s woes
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