Guy Noves will unveil his first France squad on December 29, so after a demoralising World Cup, who are the men who should drive Les Bleus towards a bright future
Guy Noves unveils his first France squad on December 29 and the last few weeks can’t have been easy viewing for the new coach who, when he took up his post, promised the fans “spectacular rugby”. There’s been a distinct lack of quality to the Top 14 since the end of the World Cup, and last weekend’s European results produced a sorry return for French clubs. Though the two Parisian clubs won – with Racing’s 33-3 destruction of Northampton producing the display of the weekend – Toulouse, Clermont and Oyonnax all lost, and even Toulon looked a little off colour in breaking down Leinster. It was even worse in the Challenge Cup, with Brive losing in Russia, Pau going down 20-0 away to the Dragons and Montpellier and Agen also losing.
Then there are the injuries. Remi Grosso is out for the Six Nations with a hernia; Francois Trinh-Duc won’t be fit until late January after suffering a lower leg injury, Teddy Thomas is also sidelined for a lengthy period, a thigh injury has laid low Wesley Fofana at Clermont and the knee injury suffered by Yoann Huget in France’s World Cup opener rules him out of the Six Nations.
With several players also suffering from a post World Cup dip in form, notably Noa Nakaitaci, Damien Chouly and Sébastien Tillous-Borde, not forgetting the international retirements of Nicolas Mas, Frederic Michalak, Pascal Papé, Dimitri Szarzewski and Thierry Dusautoir, the squad unveiled by Noves in a fortnight’s time is going to be radically different to what we saw under his predecessor, PSA
So who might make the starting XV for France’s 2016 Six Nations opener against Italy on February 6? As Christmas is nearly upon us, a time for presents, mince pies and predictions, we’ve come up with 15 players who represent the future of France.
15. Brice Dulin
One of the few France players to look sharp since the World Cup, Dulin was mistrusted by PSA on account of his 5ft 7in frame. Small, maybe, but lightning quick, with a brain and a step to match.
14. Hugo Bonneval
Back looking sharp for Stade Francais after a year out with a knee injury, the 25-year-old Bonneval beats off competition from his 20-year-old brother, Arthur, currently developing well at Toulouse.
13. Gaël Fickou
Guy Noves knows all about Fickou’s gifts, having nurtured him at Toulouse, and it’s his job to get the 21-year-old centre adding consistency to his undoubted quality.
12. Wesley Fofana
The most gifted threequarter in France, Wesley Fofana has only shown glimpses of his brilliance in the last few seasons. Might come under pressure from Jonathan Danty if the strapping 23-year-old centre rediscovers his form for Stade
11. Marvin O’Connor
The half-Aussie O’Connor has shown his pace out wide this season for Montpellier, having moved to the Med from Bayonne in the summer, and has a footballing brain to go with his speed.
10. Pierre Bernard
Many thought Bernard should have been included in the World Cup squad after another quietly impressive season with Bordeaux. He’s scored over 530 points in the last two seasons and the 25-year-old deserves a shot at France’s perennial problem position.
9. Eric Escande
There’s no finishing school in French rugby quite as challenging as Toulon, and the 23-year-old Escande is thriving under the tuition of Matt Giteau with Jonny Wilkinson also fine-tuning his goal-kicking.
8. Louis Picamoles
Noves struggled to get the best out of Picamoles at Toulouse so it’s imperative the veteran coach handles the big No8 well because in 2015 he was France’s one world-class player.
7. Wenceslas Lauret
Still just 26, Lauret has won just seven caps since making his debut in 2010. As he showed in Racing’s rout of Northampton, he remains on his day the most complete flanker in France.
6. Camille Gérondeau
The move from Racing to Clermont was a wise on for the 27-year-old, who’s stood out in a pack that has struggled for much of the season. Finally looks like fulfilling his potential.
5. Yoann Maestri
The Toulouse lock played in all but two of the 44 Tests during PSA’s disastrous reign, yet he’s still only 27 and if his body holds together will provide the front five with much needed experience.
4. Paul Jedrasiak
Romain Taofifénua and Thibault Lassalle are all in the mix to pack down with Maestri, but the 22-year Clermont lock has a raw talent that gets him the nod. Still some rough edges to be smoothed down.
3. Rabah Slimani
The 26-year-old came of age last season, ousting the veteran Nicolas Mas from the tighthead berth and anchoring the Stade scrum to Top 14 glory. A confidence player who’ll need Noves’ support.
2. Guilhem Guirado
The French press have the Toulon hooker nailed on as the man to replace Dusautoir as captain. Big boots to fill for the 29-year-old, who combines a combative presence in the loose with a strong set-piece.
1. Eddy Ben Arous
Always a force in the loose, where his work at the breakdown gives France a third flanker, Ben Arous’ scrummaging has improved greatly in the last year and he’s now at the top of his game.