France won big against Samoa but do they need to up their game against Australia this week?
France began their November with an impressive 52-8 defeat of Samoa, the first time they’ve hit a half-century of points since 2009. Now come the real Tests, with Australia and New Zealand visiting Paris on successive Saturdays. Gavin Mortimer reviews and previews…
One of the saddest sights during Philippe Saint-Andre’s reign as France coach was Wesley Fofana. The most gifted French threequarter of his generation was never able to reproduce his club form under PSA, not just because of the sterile, power-based game championed by the coach, but also because in four years he went through a succession of midfield partners – Rougerie, Fritz, Bastareaud, Mermoz and Fickou. For a season Fofana was even shunted out onto the wing, a mistake Guy Noves made last season for a couple of Six Nations matches.
Thankfully he’s now back where he belongs, and with the powerful Remi Lamerat now alongside Fofana, France may have found the centre pairing to take them to the 2019 World Cup. Though Fofana stole the headlines with his superb creative display against Samoa, his understanding with Lamerat, and the ability to read each other’s games, was crucial.
The Fiji-born Virimi Vakatawa showed the full range of his talents in scoring a hat-trick of tries against Samoa. For his first score he showed neat footwork to step inside his markers, for his second he outpaced the cover and for the third he powered through his tackler.
What makes it one of the more remarkable of Test-match triples is that Vakatawa last played a game of 15s in March – in the Six Nations against England. He spent the summer playing sevens for France, and since September he has been based permanently at the French training centre at Marcoussis as he is contracted by the FFR and not a club. Bigger challenges lie ahead for Vakatawa but, as he showed against Samoa, he is a finisher par excellence.
Trouble at ten
A broken forearm suffered early in the second half has sidelined Francois Trinh-Duc until the new year. It’s also given Guy Noves a major headache. The man who replaced Trinh-Duc at fly-half, Jean-Marc Doussain, played well, but it was an armchair ride thanks to the dominance of his pack. The dilemma for Noves is to decide whether to keep faith with Doussain, or pick the man he called up on Monday – Camille Lopez.
He’s been in fine form for Clermont this season, having slimmed down in the summer and strengthened his kicking game under the guidance of Xavier Sadourny. Doussain has never started a Test match at fly-half and has suffered for several seasons from the strange French belief that nine and ten are more or less interchangeable. Lopez is an exception in this regard, a pure fly-half, and picking him would seem logical given that the likely centre pairing against Australia will be Clermont team-mates Wesley Fofana and Remi Lamerat with another Jaunard, Scott Spedding, at full-back.
The general consensus among the French press was that the one back who didn’t shine was scrum-half Maxime Machenaud. Calls are growing for the inclusion of the young and exciting Bordeaux No 9 Baptiste Serin, who in the eyes of many is a more classically French scrum-half. Machenaud plays the game more like a home nations scrum-half, less flashy and more subservient to his fly-half. But dropping Machenaud would mean handing the kicking duties to one of Serin, Doussain or Lopez, all of whom are inexperienced goalkickers at international level.
This is crucial to any Test match but in Paris on Saturday night it could decide the outcome. France have veteran Louis Picamoles at No 8, their one world-class forward, but on the flanks they cede much to the Wallaby pair of Michael Hooper and David Pocock in experience and turnover ability.
Charles Ollivon replaced Loann Goujon early on and showed why he’s rated so highly in Toulon. Powerful and athletic, the 6ft 5in Ollivon is a strong ball-carrying loose forward, but he’s no turnover specialist. Nor is Damien Chouly, fit again after missing the Samoa match, while Kevin Gourdon and Kélian Galletier play more like opensides, but with just four caps between them they’re still learning about the rigours of Test rugby. That might mean a recall for Wenceslas Lauret, the flanker who played in all of last season’s Six Nations matches but lost his place to Gourdon when he missed the summer tour to Argentina because he was helping Racing 92 win the Top 14 title.
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