The French team powered past Scotland without ever reaching the heights, but Philippe Saint-Andre has only made one change to face Ireland. Should Joe Schmidt be worried?
Just the one change for France for the trip to Dublin on Saturday, and once again Philippe Saint-Andre has caught us off-guard. With Alexander Menini injured in the dour 15-8 win over Scotland, PSA has decided to hand a first start to Racing Metro loosehead Eddy Ben Arous, the 24-year-old who won his first cap off the bench against New Zealand two years ago. Most pundits had expected veteran Clermont prop Vincent Debaty to get the nod on the loosehead with a recall for Nicolas Mas on the tighthead. Mas once again isn’t required in the squad with PSA keeping faith with Rabah Slimani, the Stade Francais prop who didn’t convince at scrum-time against Scotland.
In selecting such an inexperienced front-row (just ten starts between the props and hooker Guilhem Guirado) PSA has gambled. It ranks as arguably the most mobile French front-row in recent memory, with all three good ball carriers, but it’s not a unit that will strike the fear of God into the Irish scrum. Which suggests PSA and Yannick Bru, the France forwards’ coach, having reviewed the tape of Ireland’s stodgy win over Italy, don’t rate the Irish eight very highly.
Why leave Mas out of the squad, and Debaty on the bench, if you’re even slightly concerned about struggling at scrum-time? Ben Arous’s inclusion also points to French concerns at the breakdown, an area where they were inferior to Scotland on Saturday, especially in the first half. With Ben Arous in the side France will have have almost a fourth back-rower.
Because of Scotland’s dominance at the ruck zone, Rory Kockott didn’t enjoy the easiest of rides on his first start for France. The Castres– scrum-half did what he could with the scrappy possession that came his way, but many French fans have been demanding a recall for Morgan Parra. Wisely, PSA has ignored the popular choice and, having gone through 14 half-back combinations in his three years in charge, he’s shown some rare continuity.
Kockott is a class player but for that quality to shine he needs greater protection from his pack. Questions remain about the balance in the back-row, and whether flankers Bernard Le Roux and Thierry Dusautoir, while world-class tacklers, are good enough on the deck at this level. Dusautoir once was, but that was before age and injury took their toil. Then there’s No 8 Damien Chouly, a player who’s always looked more comfortable wearing 6. How France could do with a ball-carrying bullock at the base of the scrum like England’s Billy Vunipola.
England’s riches in the engine row must also been the envy of France. Deprived through injury of Joe Launchbury, Courtney Lawes, Ed Slater and Geoff Parling, coach Stuart Lancaster can still rely on Dave Attwood and the find of the season, George Kruis, to slot in effortlessly.
France have no such spring-heeled young athletes in their squad and against Scotland Pascal Pape looked all of his 34 years. Alongside him, Yoann Maestri is a mountain of a man, but he’s one-paced and lacks the explosive ferocity of a Paul O’Connell or Jonny Gray. The trouble is, France have terrifyingly few options at lock other than the gargantuan but limited Romain Taofifenua. This shortage of homegrown second rows was evident on the opening day of the Top 14 season when of the 28 locks who started, only half were French, and of that number only eight were under 30.
As if to underline the dearth, on the opening round of the Champions Cup in October three of the French clubs – Toulon, Castres and Racing – fielded no France-qualified locks, while the other three – Clermont, Montpellier and Toulouse- contained just three between them.
But for French fans it’s not the pack that depresses them but their threequarters, and their inability to play like, well, Frenchmen. Fly-half Camille Lopez was voted Man of the Match against Scotland, and he did kick all his side’s points, but as the catalyst for his backline he was far from impressive. For Clermont he plays close to the gain line, for France he’s standing 10 metres behind it, so deep that Scotland’s defence had no trouble lining up Mathieu Bastauread as he lumbered upfield. It was so slow, so predictable and unless Lopez plays flatter in Dublin the Irish defence will have little problem containing France’s midfield.
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Frankly, the French public have had enough of PSA’s ponderous predictability, as evidenced by a letter published in Monday’s Midi Olympique. Letter? It was actually more a ‘cri de coeur’ from a Frenchman writing in ‘weariness, sadness and also a little anger to see French rugby so badly represented, so badly played’. And Monsieur Miserable had a message for the Irish: Sleep soundly, you’ve nothing to fear.
Prediction: Having tipped France to win the Six Nations, I can’t back out now! France to win but only if their pack subdue the Irish at the breakdown, allowing Kockott cleaner ball and allowing Lopez to play closer to the gain line. That’s a big ‘If’…