By Gavin Mortimer
IS Philippe Saint-Andre finally getting the message? The France coach has relied on the tried and tested since inheriting the squad that somehow stumbled into the World Cup final a little over two years ago, a conservatism encapsulated by his slavish devotion to Frederic Michalak.
But in naming his 30-man training squad ahead of next month’s Six Nations, Saint-Andre has selected a few welcome surprises. Stade Français’s fine form (the Parisian club are second in the Top 14 behind Clermont) sees them rewarded with the inclusion of three uncapped players – fly-half Jules Plisson, full-back Hugo Bonneval and blindside flanker Antoine Burban. There’s also a first call-up for Castres’ Geoffrey Palis, a goal-kicking full-back whose pace means he can also play on the wing. This column has been singing the praises of the 22-year-old Palis for a while and his inclusion perhaps signals that Saint-Andre now recognizes he needs a goal-kicker other than the traditional scrum-half.
Morgan Parra, who falls into that category, is still recovering from a knee injury sustained in November, although the latest medical bulletins to come out of France suggest his rehab is going well and may be fit for most of the Six Nations. Nonetheless Saint-Andre has omitted Parra from his initial squad, along with Fulgence Ouedraogo, Camille Lopez and Florian Fritz, all long-term injury cases. Among those excluded on form are Michalak – unlikely to play again for France it would seem – and the Montpellier half-back duo of Jonathan Pelissie and Francois Trinh-Duc.
Pelissie hasn’t managed to sustain his dazzling start to the season (some niggling injuries haven’t helped) while Saint-Andre has never warmed to Trinh-Duc as a fly-half. In many ways the Montpellier 10 is France’s answer to Toby Flood, a player who is comfortable at club-level but who has never found a similar consistency and quality at Test level.
So it looks like the No 10 jersey – for so long France’s problem position – will be worn by either Remi Tales of Castres or Plisson. Tales filled the role during France’s November Tests but did little to prove he’s the fly-half France have been looking for. For a start he doesn’t kick goals and his punting from hand was too wayward at Test level. Plisson isn’t a regular goal-kicker either although he’s something of a drop goal specialist. Last season he dropped six for Stade and he’s banged over four this season – including three in the last-gasp win away at Perpignan.
So well is the 22-year-old Plisson playing this season that he’s keeping Morné Steyn out of the Stade starting line-up. His creative talent has never been in doubt but this season the native of Paris has brought a far greater maturity to his game, and he’s grown in confidence since the arrival as coach of Gonzalo Quesada.
“Even this morning we were still discussing about Jules Plisson and Francois [Trinh-Duc],” admitted Saint-Andre on Monday. “Francois has put in a huge effort and he was very close [to selection] but Jules Plisson had put in some top quality performances. We’ve gone for those players at the top of their game.”
He could also have mentioned how he’s finally trusting in youth.
France training squad
Backs: Jean-Marc Doussain (Toulouse), Maxime Machenaud (Racing-Métro), Jules Plisson (Stade Français), Rémi Talès (Castres), Mathieu Bastareaud (Toulon), Gaël Fickou (Toulouse), Wesley Fofana (Clermont), Maxime Mermoz (Toulon), Sofiane Guitoune (Perpignan), Yoann Huget (Toulouse), Maxime Médard (Toulouse), Geoffrey Palis (Castres), Hugo Bonneval (Stade Français), Brice Dulin (Castres).
Forwards: Thomas Domingo (Clermont), Yannick Forestier (Castres), Benjamin Kayser (Clermont), Dimitri Szarzewski (Racing-Métro), Nicolas Mas (Montpellier), Rabah Slimani (Stade Français), Alexandre Flanquart (Stade Français), Yoann Maestri (Toulouse), Pascal Papé (Stade Français), Sébastien Vahaamahina (Perpignan), Thierry Dusautoir (Toulouse, capt), Bernard Le Roux (Racing-Métro), Yannick Nyanga (Toulouse), Damien Chouly (Clermont), Louis Picamoles (Toulouse).