Philippe Saint-Andre said his side were like Father Christmas in gifting England tries, but after another humdrum tournament, time is running out for the World Cup...
“The World Cup starts today!” declared Philippe Saint-Andre the day after France had suffered a 20-point stuffing by England. Never before had France shipped 50 points to the English, and while they’d never scored 35 points at Twickenham, the fact remains that France finished fourth in the Six Nations, as they did in 2012 and 2014. Still, at least that’s an improvement on 2013, when they were bottom.
It’s an appalling record, the worst run of Six Nations results that France have endured in the professional era, but Saint-Andre was bullish in his prediction of Les Bleus’ chances in the World Cup. “I have confidence in our players,” he told the press. “They have the quality and the desire.”
Between now and May 19, Saint-Andre must select his World Cup squad of 36 players. On Sunday he told reporters 80 percent of the squad was already pencilled in, which means there are only seven or eight places up for grabs.
Certain players we can sure will be part of Saint-Andre’s plans. Captain Thierry Dusautoir, full-back Scott Spedding, wing Yoann Huget, second-row Yoann Maestri, and the front-row of props Nicolas Mas and Vincent Debaty and Guilhelm Guirado are all sure to be selected.
So, too, Maxime Mermoz and Gael Fickou, the centre pairing that against England reminded the world how skilful French threequarters can be. As was the case with England’s selection of Jonathan Joseph, injuries forced the coach to make changes that turned out for the best, and it will be intriguing to see how Wesley Fofana reacts for Clermont to the realisation that he’s lost his place in the France starting line-up.
With Alexandre Dumoulin back training again after a persistent Achilles problem over the winter, France suddenly have strength in depth in the centre, as they do on the wing, where some commentators see Fofana’s role in the World Cup.But with Huget nailed on to the right wing, there’s only the left to play for, and Noa Nakaïtaci and Teddy Thomas will be in competition for that berth. Thomas, however, the precocious young Racing winger, hasn’t impressed the schoolmasterly Saint-Andre with his attitude since marking his debut with a hat-trick of tries against Fiji.
The same applies to Bayonne No 8 Charles Ollivion, like Thomas a gifted footballer, but someone with an independence of spirit that doesn’t sit well with PSA or his coaching staff. Some within the France squad were allegedly “shocked” to see Ollivon failing to adhere to PSA’s code of conduct.
Will PSA risk including the pair in his squad, or will be prefer to pick less talented but more tractable players?
It might be that the length of the World Cup preparation, which in France’s case starts in the first week of July, will convince PSA that he can knock them both into shape. The same applies to Toulouse No 8 Louis Picamoles, and the Toulon prop Xavier Chiocci and centre Mathieu Bastareaud, although in their cases it’s physical and not mental shape that is stopping them reaching their potential. They’re a trio of fine players who’d be even finer if they were fitter. Two months of healthy eating and hard fitness in the France training camp would do wonders for their game.
When he’s fit and focused, Picamoles is the best No 8 in France and if he does stir himself in the summer he could make his first start since the 2014 Six Nations. Loann Goujon has played well in his two opportunities against Italy and England, but the French need more ball-carrying presence in their back-row.
That’s the reason why Bernard Le Roux might have a job on his hands to keep hold of the No7 shirt in the autumn. He’s a good athlete but struggles to make the hard yards at international level. Yannick Nyanga, Wenceslas Lauret , Fulgence Ouedraogo and Alexandre Lapandry are alternatives, and there’s a rumour in France that Clermont’s veteran flanker, Julien Bonnaire, could be a surprise inclusion the squad.
Though he won the last of his 75 caps in 2012 Bonnaire – who turns 37 the day after France’s opening World Cup match against Italy – has been in good form for Clermont this season and PSA will have noted how England weren’t afraid to call on the experience of Nick Easter during the Six Nations, a player one month older than the Clermont back-rower.
But the glaring weakness for France remains at fly-half where in his three and a half years in charge of France, PSA has called on Camille Lopez, Jules Plisson, Rémi Talès, Frédéric Michalak, François Trinh-Duc and Lionel Beauxis. None has managed to combine quality with consistency and that has left the door open for Grenoble’s Jonathan Wisniewski, who’s flourished this season since arriving from Racing.
The 29-year-old has more maturity to his game than either Lopez or Plisson, is defensively sound, reads the game well and possesses the skillset to adapt to circumstances. But best of all, he can kick goals, and his 248 points this season put him way out in front of the Top 14 leaderboard.
Crippled by conservatism for so much of his reign, PSA has opened his mind in recent weeks and the inclusion of Wisniewski in his World Cup squad would be further proof that he’s longer a slave to convention.