By Gavin Mortimer
PHILIPPE SAINT-ANDRE has kept faith with his fumbling French side for the visit of Wales to the Stade de France on Saturday evening. Instead of bringing down the guillotine on the heads of players following their stunning defeat to Italy on Sunday, the French coach has only made one unenforced change. Mathieu Bastareaud replaces Florian Fritz in the centre, the big man’s first start for France since he played against England in the 2010 Six Nations.
In the pack second row Jocelino Suta comes in for the injured Pascal Pape but otherwise Saint-Andre is giving his side a second chance. Quick to point out that Fritz wasn’t a scapegoat for the events in Rome, Saint-Andre explained his reasoning behind the return of the 18-stone Toulon centre. “The choice of Bastareaud is a strategical decision with regard to the Welsh defence,” he said. “It’s also an opportunity to field a 10-12-13 combination that plays together at the same club.”
That’s true, although few are the times this season when Bastareaud has played at Toulon outside Maxime Memorz (12) and Frederic Michalak (10). In fact Michalak has only started twice for Toulon this season at fly-half, the rest of the time wearing nine to Jonny Wilkinson’s ten. It’s a situation that must drive Saint-Andre to distraction, but one of his predecessors as coach of France, Bernard Laporte, now coach of Toulon, does what he believes is best for the club and not for the country. How Saint-Andre must be hoping that Wilkinson doesn’t sign on for another couple of years at Toulon when his present contract expires in June.
Nevertheless Saint-Andre believes Bastareaud is the man to nullify the threat posed by the Welsh midfield, in particular the hard-running Jamie Roberts. “Roberts is an important factor in the Welsh system, he’s the player who can make the hard yards when the ball is slow.” explained Saint-Andre on Thursday morning, adding that when the pair met in a Heineken Cup encounter last month the Frenchman had “a quality match” against the Cardiff Blue.
In Saint-Andre’s eyes what the French backline lacked against Italy was some punch and aggression going forward, hence another reason to select Bastareaud. “Above all we want to rediscover our fire and our desire to get over the gain-line. Mathieu can bring that to the team.”
As for the selection of the 30-year-old Jocelino Suta in place of Pascal Pape, Saint-Andre explained why he’d opted for his experience over the youth of Romain Taofifenua, the 22-year-old Perpignan lock who replaced Pape on Sunday. “He’s someone who knows the lineout systems,” said the French coach of Suta. “He was one of the lineout leaders in November (during the autumn internationals) and he knows perfectly the calls. As for Romain, he knows that he’s still got some work to do to reach the highest level. For the moment we see his advantage as an ‘impact player’ in the last 30 minutes.”
One of the players relived to escape the chop was scrum-half Maxime Machenaud, who’s held off the challenge from Clermont’s Morgan Parra. “It’s proof of the confidence he’s given us,” said Machenaud when asked about Saint-Andre’s faith in the side. “Now we’ll have to be really up for this second chance.”
That’s the fear among Welsh fans. The French cockerel had its tail feathers clipped in Rome, and it didn’t much like it. In Paris on Saturday it wants to gets its claws into Wales and rediscover its pride.
Follow Gavin Mortimer on Twitter @gavinmortimer7