Philippe-Saint Andre is still looking for the right combination from his French side as he strives to find a winning formula
So not for the first time in his three-year reign Philippe Saint-Andre [PSA] has taken a broom to the Bleus, changing a third of the XV for the visit of Wales to the Stade de France on Saturday. Out goes full-back Scott Spedding, replaced by Brice Dulin, along with the injured Teddy Thomas, whose place on the left wing is filled by Sofiane Guitoune. Romain Taofifenua replaces the suspended Pascal Papé in the second row and Mathieu Bastareaud is axed in favour of Castres Remi Lamerat. Pity poor Wesley Fofana who must now acquaint himself with his sixth midfield partner in two years.
After PSA finally gave up on his wacky idea of playing France’s most gifted centre on the wing during 2012, Fofana was moved back to where he belongs and paired first with Florian Fritz. That partnership last half a dozen Tests before PSA dropped Fritz for his Toulouse teammate Gael Fickou. The youngster, just 19 when he made his debut against Scotland in March 2013, wasn’t given long to find his feet at Test level before he was supplanted by Maxime Mermoz.
That Toulon star soon waned and in came Mathieu Bastareaud, playing alongside Fofana for most of 2014. But come last November’s triumvirate of Tests and PSA was chopping and changing again, this time pairing Fofana with the craft of Alexandre Dumoulin. Injury to the Racing centre at the start of 2015 prompted PSA to revert to the bullocking Basta but after two rounds of the Six Nations, the France coach seems to have realised that his 17 ½ stone centre is best used off the bench late on.
The fifth change for the Wales match is at scrum-half, where Morgan Parra will make his first start for France since the disastrous summer tour to Australia in June in place of Rory Kockott. Parra will play inside his club colleague, Camille Lopez, the first time the Clermont half-backs have been paired together in a France starting XV.
It will be the fifteenth – yes, 15th – half-back pairing selected by Philippe Saint-Andre in his 35 Tests in charge, proof, if any more was needed, that he won’t go down in the annals of Test match rugby as one of the more astute coaches.
For nowhere is the chaos of PSA’s reign more apparent than at half-back. He began, in those faraway days of February 2012, with Dimitri Yachvili and Francois Trinh-Duc. They lasted one Test – the victory over Italy – before he plumped for Morgan Parra and Trinh-Duc. By the time France hosted England in that season’s Six Nations, it was Julien Dupuy wearing the No 9 shirt and Lionel Beauxis at ten. Beaten by England, PSA axed Dupuy for the trip to Wales in preference for Yachvili.
That indecisiveness set the tone for what’s followed. On the 2012 summer tour to Argentina, PSA got it into his head that Maxime Machenaud and Frederic Michalak could be a marriage made in heaven, and indeed their alliance bore fruit with victories over Argentina in the second Test and then wins against Australia and Argentine in the November Tests of 2012. Though Morgan Parra was brought in for the last of that series of Tests (the win against Samoa), Machenaud and Michalak were reunited for the start of the 2013 Six Nations.
France began that tournament as serious contenders, what with their 33-6 hammering of the Wallabies in November, but defeat to Italy and Wales in their opening two matches led PSA to part company with Machenaud and Michalak. In came Parra and Trinh-Duch for the trip (and defeat) to Twickenham, and out went the Montpellier fly-half the following match, as Michalak was recalled.
Come on, try and keep up.
It was all change again when France toured New Zealand in June 2013 with Machenaud back in the scrum-half saddle, paired for the first Test with Camille Lopez and with Michalak in the second Test. The third Test? PSA thought it might work if he paired Jean-Marc Doussain with Remi Tales. It didn’t. The French lost 24-9.
And so it’s continued. Parra and Tales started all three of France’s November Tests in 2013 but by the time of the 2014 Six Nations PSA was smitten with Doussain and Jules Plisson. They also lasted three games before Doussain was dropped for Machenaud. One Test later it was Plisson’s turn to feel the sharp blade of the guillotine with Tales recalled.
After the calamity of last summer’s tour to Australia, PSA recalled Sebastien Tillous-Borde in November after a five-year hiatus from Test rugby, while placing his faith in Lopez at fly-half.
Now here’s a stat that might yield a clue as to why France have been so poor since 2012. The Wales game will be Lopez’s sixth consecutive start in the 10 shirt, and should he survive Saturday’s encounter and face Italy next month he will be the only fly-half under PSA to have played seven Tests in a row (Michalak also managed six straight appearances in 2012/13).
Contrast that shocking lack of consistency with Wales. They have played 37 Tests to France’s 34 since the start of 2012 and in that time Mike Phillips has started 27 Tests and Dan Biggar 19. Of their 17 Six Nations matches, Wales have won 13 and France a mere seven.
Warren Gatland may have his faults, but what France would give for a coach who could make up his mind.