By Gavin Mortimer
Finally Philippe Saint-Andre has dared to be bold à la mode Stuart Lancaster. The two coaches took charge of their countries in the wake of the 2011 World Cup but whereas the Englishman has never shied away from making the daring call, Saint-Andre was a slave to conservatism in the first two years of his reign. Not now, however, with the French coach selecting the most adventurous XV since taking over from Marc Lievremont.
Jean-Marc Doussain, the 22-year-old Toulouse scrum-half, makes only his second start (and his first Six Nations appearance) for France, while flankers Yannick Nyanga and Bernard Le Roux will pack down either side of Louis Picamoles in a dynamic back-row. There’s also a third cap for 24-year-old Stade Francais lock Alexandre Flanquart – selected in front of Yoann Maestri for his greater athleticism – while 19-year-old centre Gael Fickou is named on the bench.
But without doubt the biggest gamble from Saint-Andre is his selection of the uncapped Jules Plisson at fly-half. The 22-year-old will be in good company in Paris on Saturday – what with the English pair of Jack Nowell and Luther Burrell also winning their first caps – but nowhere on a rugby field is a player more exposed than fly-half. He’s the man who makes the decision and it’s a big shout by Saint-Andre to bestow such a responsibility on Plisson’s young shoulders.
His partnership with Doussain is the tenth half-back combination that Saint-Andre has fielded in his two years in charge of France. But unlike others, this one could be for keeps. “Jules has a great package, physically and strategically,” explained Saint-Andre on Thursday after announcing his starting XV. “Jules is determined, focused [and] life will be easier for him if his teammates are on the front foot and if his forwards win their duels.”
Describing the half-back partnership as “young and talented”, Saint-Andre added: “We have nothing to fear in picking Plisson and Doussain against England”.
Doussain, as he showed in Toulouse’s recent win against Saracens in the Heineken Cup, can also give a pretty good impersonation of a fly-half and it’s this versatility that prompted Saint-Andre to omit Francois Trinh-Duc from his matchday squad and leave Maxime Machenaud as the only recognised half-back on the bench. “He [Doussain] has played the last three games for Toulouse at fly-half,” said the France coach, who stated also that Doussain will kick.
Again, it’s a gamble by Saint-Andre, selecting as his front-line goalkicker an inexperienced youngster like Doussain. He was ice-cool against Saracens, slotting seven from eight penalties in their 21-11 victory, but that was a club match in front of 18,000 fans. The pressure on Saturday evening will be far greater in the 80-000 capacity Stade de France, and Saint-Andre will be praying that Doussain is up to the task. Were he to have an off day, then the options are stark: Machenaud can kick, as can Plisson, but neither do so regularly for their clubs and one suspects they wouldn’t much relish the challenge were it to come their way on Saturday.
Saint-Andre has gambled in his selection but then so has Lancaster. On Saturday evening we’ll discover which coach can cash in his chips.
Jules Plisson features in the features in the March edition of Rugby World Magazine – our Six Nations Special – in shops now!