France coach Philippe Saint-Andre has named a largely tried and tested squad in readiness for a tournament which will define his four-year reign
Philippe Saint-Andre unveiled his World Cup squad on Tuesday morning and among the 36 names there were a few surprises. Three of the squad involved in France’s last Test match, the 55-35 defeat to England at Twickenham, miss out with fly-half Jules Plisson, centre Maxime Mermoz and second-row Romain Taofifenua all overlooked.
Plisson may yet be involved with Saint-Andre [PSA] saying the Stade Francais fly-half, who dislocated his shoulder last month, could be brought into the squad during the summer depending on his fitness. Mermoz will feel disappointed after a decent display against England, but PSA has steadily lost faith in the Toulon centre during his time in charge of France, instead preferring to pair Wesley Fofana with Mathieu Bastareaud. Alexandre Dumoulin, Gaël Fickou and Remi Lamerat are the other centres to make the squad but it’s a sign of PSA’s conservatism that there is no place for Jonathan Danty, the 22-year-old Stade Francais player who has been the in-form French centre since Christmas.
Conservatism has underpinned much of PSA’s reign and it’s in evidence in his half-back selection. The French media has been pressing the claims of Bordeaux fly-half Pierre Bernard in recent weeks, while Grenoble’s Jonathan Wisniewski – the Top 14’s leading points scorer this season with 325 – was also mooted. Instead PSA has gone with what he knows, selecting Morgan Parra, Sebastien Tillous-Borde and Rory Kockott as his scrum-halves with Francois Trinh-Duc, Remi Tales and Frederick Michalak his tens.
The trio of scrum-halves are all fine players but it’s at fly-half where France have problems. Trinh-Duc, who won the last of his 49 caps in February 2014, has been out for six months with a broken leg. He’s performed well in patches since his return in March, but against Stade Francais on Saturday the Montpellier fly-half came off second best in his duel with Morne Steyn. Tales has made little impression on the international stage in his 16 appearances and Michalak was last seen by a British audience being hauled off eight minutes into the second-half of Toulon’s Champions Cup semi-final against Leinster.
Fly-half has been the problem position for France for more than a decade and there will be few opponents having sleeping nights in the coming months at the prospect of coming up against Tales, Trinh-Duc or Michalak.
Out wide PSA has gone for Sofiane Guitoune, Yoann Huget and Noa Nakaitaci, which means no place for Teddy Thomas, the exciting Racing Metro wing who just a few months ago was the toast of France after his sensational solo try against Australia. Injured against Ireland in the Six Nations, Thomas has struggled with fitness and form ever since. Scott Spedding and Brice Dulin will vie for the full-back slot but not Maxime Medard, tipped by many in France to be in the squad after a strong season with Toulouse.
Up front there’s a return to the France squad for Louis Picamoles, who won the last of his 44 caps on last summer’s disastrous tour to Australia. Laid low with illness at the start of the season, the Toulouse No 8 is close to rediscovering his top form, combining ferocious power with intelligent positioning. Also back in the squad after a long absence through injury is Montpellier’s Fulgence Ouedraogo, one of four flankers along with Bernard Le Roux, Yannick Nyanga and captain Thierry Dusautoir.
Alexandre Flanquart, Yohann Maestri, Sébastien Vahaamahina and Pascal Pape are the locks, the latter yet to return from a 10-week ban imposed during the Six Nations for kneeing Jamie Heaslip. Lock is another problem position for France with none of the above quartet good enough to be called world-class. Long on bulk but short on athleticism.
In the front row Xavier Chiocci gets the nod ahead of Clermont’s Thomas Domingo and Toulon teammate Alexandre Menini at loosehead, joining Eddy Ben Arous and Vincent Debaty, while the tightheads are Uini Atonio, Rabah Slimani and Nicolas Mas, who is appearing in his third World Cup.
Guilhem Guirado, Benjamin Kayser and Dimitri Szarzewski are the hookers, who along with the rest of the squad, will start their World Cup preparation on July 6. Les Bleus play two warm-up matches against England in August 15 and 22, and by August 31 PSA must have whittled down his squad from 36 to 31.
Props: Uini Atonio, Eddy Ben Arous, Xavier Chiocci, Vincent Debaty, Nicolas Mas, Rabah Slimani
Hookers: Guilhem Guirado, Benjamin Kayser, Dimitri Szarzewski
Second row: Alexandre Flanquart, Yohann Maestri, Pascal Papé, Sébastien Vahaamahina
Flankers: Thierry Dusautoir, Bernard Le Roux, Yannick Nyanga, Fulgence Ouedraogo
No 8s: Damien Chouly, Loann Goujon, Louis Picamoles
Scrum-halves: Rory Kockott, Morgan Parra, Sébastien Tillous-Borde
Fly-halves: Frédéric Michalak, François Trinh-Duc, Rémi Talès
Centres: Mathieu Bastareaud, Alexandre Dumoulin, Gaël Fickou, Wesley Fofana, Rémi Lamérat
Wings: Sofiane Guitoune, Yoann Huget, Noa Nakaitaci
Full-back: Brice Dulin, Scott Spedding