By Gavin Mortimer
JUST WHEN you thought Philippe Saint-Andre’s (PSA) selections couldn’t get any stranger, the France coach goes and proves us all wrong. In announcing his starting XV for the trip to Scotland, PSA has made seven changes to the side that slumped to a 27-6 defeat to Wales a fortnight ago.
There’s a whole new back row in No 8 Damien Chouly and flankers Alexandre Lapandry and Sébastien Vahaamahina, replacing that of Yannick Nyanga (injured), Louis Picamoles (dropped for disciplinary reasons) and Wencelas Lauret (just dropped). Sure, the 22-year-old Vahaamahina is big and powerful, but also pretty slow, even as a lock, the position he normally occupies for Perpignan. So to suddenly ask him do a job on the blind-side is bullish and also an indication of PSA’s conservative game plan for Saturday.
In the front row Castres hooker Brice Mach is handed his first start for France two weeks after making his debut from the bench against Wales. He’s a tidy player, Mach, but were it not for injuries to Benjamin Kayser and Dimitri Szarzewski he wouldn’t be where he is now.
Behind the pack Saint-Andre has paired Jules Plisson with Maxime Machenaud, a partnership that should give the young fly-half a better service and a cooler brain. Machenaud not only replaces Jean-Marc Doussain at scrum-half but as goalkicker, too, with France praying he can find the consistency that they crave. Earlier in the week, Midi Oympique revealed that in their 11 Test matches last year, France succeeded with just 66 percent of their attempts at goal compared to the 78 success rate achieved by the All Blacks in the same period. Until they find a goalkicker who can pot his goals with the regularity required at this level France will never become serious contenders for the World Cup.
In the threequarters PSA persists with Mathieu Bastareaud, showing the same sort of dogged faith in his ability to come good on the international stage as England coach Roy Hodgson entrusts in Wayne Rooney. With Wesley Fofana out of the tournament with a rib injury, PSA has opted to bring in Maxime Mermoz alongside Bastareaud, leaving the exciting Gael Fickou to warm his derriere on the bench. It’s a baffling decision, but then so is the selection of Maxime Medard on the wing in place of Hugo Bonneval.
A precis: for the opening match of the Six Nations against England, PSA selected Medard on the left wing but then dropped him for Bonneval for the visit of Italy a week later. The young Stade Francais player scored a wonderful try on his debut and against Wales made the most of the limited ball that he received. Now Bonneval is dropped out and Medard is back. There’s nothing like nurturing young talent…
Bonneval isn’t even on the bench, instead he and Wenceslas Lauret are the 24th and 25th players in the squad, in other words the water carriers. Lauret, just to remind you, was brought in for the Wales match and is surplus to requirements eighty minutes later.
Let’s cut to the quick: PSA seems to be losing the plot in much the same way Martin Johnson began to unravel in the last months of his disastrous reign. As Pierre Berbizier, PSA’s former coach at international level, said recently, he seems “sad” and lacking in vitality. In his demeanour perhaps, but certainly not in his team selection, which is nothing if not frenetic.
France XV vs Scotland: 15. Dulin 14. Huget 13. Bastareaud, 12. Mermoz, 11. Médard 10. Plisson, 9.Machenaud 8. Chouly 7. Lapandry, 6. Vahaamahina 5. Maestri 4. Papé (cap.) 3.Mas 2. Mach 1. Domingo.
Bench: Guirado, Forestier, Slimani, Flanquart, Bruni, Doussain, Tales, Mermoz