France coach Guy Noves has to take on Argentina with a weakened squad
The French press are already calling it ‘Une Tournée Infernale’ (A Tour of Hell) and that’s before Guy Noves and his 28-man squad even arrive in Argentina for a two-Test series against the Pumas. It would be a daunting challenge at the best of times for les Bleus, who have won just one of their last six Tests in Argentina, but Noves will head to South America with a squad shorn of its top talent.
England did something similar in 1998 when Clive Woodward took an inexperienced squad to the southern hemisphere that featured 17 uncapped players. That was the original ‘Tour of Hell’, so-called because England were thrashed 76-0 by Australia and 64-22 and 40-10 by New Zealand. In fact so low did expectations sink down south that it was considered something of an achievement when they restricted the Springboks to an 18-0 victory in the fourth and final Test of the tour.
France have only to play two Tests against the Pumas, in Tucuman on 18 June and a week later in the same stadium, but those dates clash with the semi-final and final of the Top 14, meaning Noves won’t be able to select players from the four strongest clubs in the country. As it stands, with two rounds of the Top 14 regular season to play, the French coach will be deprived of players from Clermont, Toulon, Montpellier and Racing.
So no Morgan Parra, Damien Chouly, Wesley Fofana, Scott Spedding and Paul Jedrasiak from Clermont; the Toulon pair of Guilhem Guirado and centre Maxime Mermoz; and Racing‘s Bernard Le Roux, Brice Dulin, Alexandre Dumoulin, Maxime Machenaud, Eddy Ben Arous and Wenceslas Lauret. Of course, it’s by no means certain that quartet will contest the semi-finals with Toulouse, Castres and Bordeaux battling to finish in the top six and qualify for the play-offs.
Noves was scheduled to name an initial squad of 17 players on Tuesday, with the remaining 11 announced after the Top 14 play-offs on the weekend of 11/12 June. But in a brief communique on Tuesday morning, the France coach said that because of the uncertainty surrounding which clubs will qualify for the play-offs, he has decided to postpone the announcement until 5 June.
One can only feel for Noves and his coaching staff of Yannick Bru and Jeff Dubois as they are left to clean up a mess caused by the disorganisation of the FFR and the LNR. Against the country that finished fourth in the World Cup, the country that finished fifth in this year’s Six Nations must play two Tests with a blend of youth, inexperience and players who were passed over in their prime.
Grenoble fly-half Jonathan Wisniewski falls into the latter category, although the 30-year-old is enjoying a second wind to his career thanks to the astute coaching of Bernard Jackman. Wisniewski is likely to be selected, six years after first being called into a France squad, only to miss out on a cap because of a knee injury. And a couple of his Grenoble team-mates could be in line for a call in 22-year-old threequarter Xavier Mignot and uncapped flanker Mahamadou Diaby.
Other tyros touted by the French press in recent days as tour contenders include Agen lock William Demotte, Oyonnax second-row Fabrice Metz and Brive’s prolific goalkicking full-back Gaëtan Germain.
Noves knows that France are on a hiding too nothing but at the same time the message he’s emitting is a positive one. “There’s no pressure,” he said at the start of the week. “The idea is really to give the players the opportunity to show what they are capable of at the highest level. It’s actually very exciting for these young players to be able to show us whether we should stick with them in the three years to come.”
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There’ll be tough days to come in Argentina but if Noves does feel down he should seek solace in England’s experience 18 years ago. Several of the squad selected by Woodward sunk without trace but five players who suffered the agony of that Tour to Hell returned in 2003. And this time Josh Lewsey, Jonny Wilkinson, Matt Dawson, Phil Vickery and Lewis Moody walked away with the World Cup.
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