The enigmatic French had a largely positive Autumn Series, but in typical style, ended on a bum note with a loss to the Pumas
France’s November Tests are over and coach Philippe Saint-Andre will have seen some encouraging signs. A 40-15 victory over Fiji was followed by the heartstopping 29-26 defeat of Australia, but then France were beaten 18-13 by Argentina, their first home defeat in seven years to the Pumas. So is it back to the drawing board for PSA or more a case of drumming into his players’ heads the reminder that a great Gallic win doesn’t always have to be followed by a feeble French loss…?
South African-born Scott Spedding played every minute of the three Tests and acquitted himself well. A dream debut against Fiji – in which he carried for more metres than any other French player and created two tries for Teddy Thomas – was followed by a more hesitant performance vs Australia. Exposed defensively on a couple of occasions, he still impressed with his intelligent kicking game and Spedding finished the triumvirate of Tests with a steady display against Argentina. His contrasting style to last season’s incumbent, the small and speedy Brice Dulin (currently out injured) gives Philippe Saint-Andre healthy strength in depth at the back.
After a quiet start to the season with Toulouse, Yoann Huget made a welcome return to form with Les Bleus and was the standout French back in the disappointing defeat to Argentina. Solid in defence and intelligent in attack, he complements the raw pace and power of Teddy Thomas, undoubtedly the find of the autumn for France. The 21-year-old left wing scored a hat-trick of tries on his debut against Fiji, and followed that with a brilliant individual effort vs Australia, weaving past five Wallabies en route to the try-line. He was axed from the squad for the Argentina Test because of poor timekeeping, a crass act by Saint-Andre for a player so young, but his replacement – Maxime Medard – had a night to forget and may have played his last game in a French shirt.
Saint-Andre rated Alexandre Dumoulin as the pick of the backs in November and the outside-centre certainly looked at ease in his first two Test matches. Although Racing teammate Teddy Thomas grabbed the headlines with his hat-trick of tries against Fiji, the 25-year-old Dumoulin put in a polished performance, repeatedly breaking the Islanders’ gain line and offloading well out of contact. Having earned comparisons with a young Yannick Jauzion, Dumoulin showed the other side of his game against Australia, making six big tackles in the first 40 minutes before a thigh injury ruled him out for the rest of the month.
Neither of his replacements, Mathieu Bastareaud and Maxime Mermoz, showed anywhere near the same quality, and Dumoulin will be free to resume his midfield partnership with Wesley Fofana in the Six Nations. The Clermont centre suffered last season because of all the upheaval at half-back in the French squad but Fofana offered glimpses this month of the form he showed when he burst onto the scene two seasons ago, and playing outside club colleague Camille Lopez will only aid France next year.
The Argentine Test was a step back for both fly-half Camille Lopez and Sebastien Tillous-Borde. The former regressed the longer November wore on, culminating in his 47th minute substitution against the Pumas. On came Rory Kockott, and the Castres’ scrum-half introduced a far greater urgency to the French game than in the first 40 minutes. Decisive, dynamic and mixing his game with a variety of clever kicks, deft passes and sniping runs, the South Africa should take possession of the No 9 shirt next year.
Lopez will probably partner Kockott in the Six Nations, though the Clermont fly-half ended on a low note with his anonymous performance against Argentina. Seven days previously, Lopez had been outstanding in the win over the Aussies (landing six from seven shots at goal) but he’ll need to find consistency if he doesn’t wish to be remembered as just another French fly-half who flattered to deceive.
Toulouse hooker Guilhem Guirado was one of the successes of November for France and will start in the No 2 jersey in the Six Nations even with the return from injury of Dimitri Szarzewski. No forward carried more often than Guirado against Australia and his throwing in that Test was an improvement on the Fiji game. Quick and aggressive in the loose, Guirado’s appearance as a second-half substitute against Argentina helped galvanise the French pack and perhaps signalled the end of Benjamin Kayser’s international career.
Similarly, the introduction of Alex Menini on 37 minutes brought more power and pugnacity to the France scrum. A fierce tackler – he made 12 against the Wallabies – Menini needs to tighten his discipline but in the battle with Xavier Chiocci for the loosehead’s jersey he is clearly ahead after the November Tests. On the tighthead side of the scrum, the great Nicolas Mas is now looking every one of his 34 years and Kiwi-born Uini Atonio has probably played himself into the starting line-up for the Six Nations.
Pascal Pape and Yoann Maestri locked the French scrum for the first Two Tests and will start in the Six Nations. The pair might not have the athleticism of a Courtney Lawes or a Brodie Retallick , but they are big, hard men who give the French set-piece a precious stability. Maestri was rested for the Pumas Test, his place going to Sebastien Vahaamahina, but not for the first time in a French shirt the 23-year-old struggled to transfer his Clermont club form onto the international arena. France are short in depth in the engine room and Saint-Andre needs Pape and Maestri to stay fit next year.
Damien Chouly has a fight on his hands to hang onto the No 8 shirt for the Six Nations. Imanol Harinordoquy, Louis Picamoles and Charles Ollivon (who made two brief appearances from the bench this month) are all challenging for the position, and all offer more offensively than the Clermont captain. His 14 tackles against Australia underlined Chouly’s defensive worth to France – not forgetting his skill as a line-out jumper – but he was nowhere to be seen as a ball-carrier and against Argentina was outplayed in the loose by the Pumas’ back-row.
Thierry Dusautoir also failed to reproduce against Argentina the form he showed in the win over Australia, and the France captain will have be well managed by Saint-Andre if his ageing body is to be in good shape at next year’s World Cup. Not a problem for openside Bernard Le Roux, the pick of the France pack in the November Tests. The 25-year-old Racing man has grown in confidence as a ball-carrier, allying this skill to his tireless tackling, foraging at the breakdown and his line-out jumping.