By Gavin Mortimer
HERE’S A curious stat for you. In the professional age, every Six Nations championship following a Lions tour has been won by the French. In 1998 they clinched the Grand Slam while the home nations were still basking in the glory of beating the Springboks the previous summer; four years later France repeated the feat nine months after the Lions trip Down Under. A clean sweep eluded Les Bleus in 2006 – a shock 20-16 defeat to Scotland on the opening weekend their only reverse in winning the title) but in 2010 France had another Grand Slam to celebrate.
It could all be a coincidence, or it could be point to the fact that France, more than any other Six Nations side, reaps the benefit from a Lions tour. For fun though a Lions tour is, it has a detrimental effect on the fortunes of the four nations involved. True, Scotland are in South Africa with an almost full-strength squad, but Wales have taken a B team to Japan and likewise Ireland to North America. Stuart Lancaster’s England are getting a more meaningful test in Argentina, even without eight of their number, but the call-up of prop Alex Corbisiero can’t have down well with the English. Sure, Lancaster made all the right noises, saying “all the England players and management couldn’t be more pleased for him to get this opportunity…after he missed the Six Nations through injury”.
But can Lancaster really have been cock-a-hoop at the call-up? When fit, Corbisiero is arguably the best prop in England, a player vital to Lancaster’s 2015 World Cup plans. A couple of brutal Tests in Argentina would have been an important step in Corbisiero’s rehabilitation after six months out of international rugby with a knee injury; instead, he’s off to Oz to do what exactly? Play in a midweek match here or there, against a front row not fit to clean the boots of the average Argentine tight forward.
There’s a lot of drivel talked about the Lions, about how it’s the pinnacle of any British or Irish player’s career. Maybe for an Irishman or Scotsman, who realistically will never get their hands on the World Cup, but for an Englishman? Trevor Woodman was never a Lion, but the England prop did win the World Cup in 2003. If Corbisiero was given the choice of playing a Lions Test against the Wallabies or lifting the Webb Ellis Cup in 2015, I wonder which he would choose.
But back to the French, who are just about to play the first of three Tests against the All Blacks. The last time France toured New Zealand was the summer of 2009, when the Lions were losing to South Africa, and they stunned their hosts by winning the first Test 27-22. They nearly clinched the two-Test series the following week in Wellington, going down 14-10 in galeforce conditions.
It was a tour that made the names of a several young Frenchmen – Louis Picamoles, Maxime Medard, Mathieu Bastareaud, Fulgence Ouedraogo and Francois Trinh-Duc – players who would go on to win the Grand Slam for France the following year and take them to the World Cup final in 2011.
The XV unveiled by Philippe Saint-Andre for Saturday’s first Test in Auckland also trusts in youth. The two half-backs are both 24 and while Maxime Machenaud will be winning his ninth cap, Bordeaux fly-half Camille Lopez will be making his debut. So will winger Adrien Planté, who moved from Perpignan to Racing Metro this month, while 21-year-old second-row Sébastien Vahaamahina makes only his second start for his country.
On the bench Saint-Andre has chosen Alexandre Flanquart, the 23-year-old Stade Francais lock, and Daniel Kotze, the South-African born Clermont prop. Both are uncapped, unlike Jean-Marc Doussain, the Toulouse scrum-half of whom great things are expected. Doussain has five minutes of international rugby under his belt, the 22-year-old having come on during the dying stages of the 2011 World Cup final against the All Blacks.
Doussain was on the losing side on that occasion, and the form book suggests he won’t be tasting victory on Saturday. But in the long term, France stand to win from their tour to New Zealand while the home nations’ finest are gallivanting across Australia.
New Zealand v France, Saturday 8 June, 8.35am (BST), Auckland. Live on Sky Sports 2
France: Huget; Planté, Fritz, Fofana, Médard; Lopez, Machenaud; Domingo, Szarzewski, Ducalcon, Vahaamahina, Maestri, Dusautoir (c), Ouedraogo, Picamoles.
Reps: Guirado, Debaty, Kotze, Flanquart, Nyanga, Doussain, Michalak, Mermoz.