Rumours of France's demise have been premature, after levelling the Series against Argentina, we assess reasons for hope in the Les Bleus camp
The predictions of doom and gloom were premature. Far from a Tour of Hell, France’s two-Test series in Argentina ended all-square and offers Les Bleus some hope for next season. RW runs an eye over France’s form against the Pumas…
1. New Faces
Deprived of several of his leading players because of the Top 14 semi-finals, coach Guy Noves took a raw 28-man squad to Argentina and seven new caps were selected for the first Test against the Pumas. Three stood out in particular: 21-year-old scrum-half Baptiste Serin, second-row Julien Ledevedec and hooker Remi Bonfils.
Selected again for the second Test, the trio made the step up from club to Test rugby look easy, and while France are already well served at scrum-half and hooker, the emergence of Ledevedec (at 30 a late bloomer) will offer Noves more options next season in a position where France have few quality players.
Together with veteran lock Yoann Maestri, Ledevedec dominated the line-out battle in the 27-0 thrashing of the Pumas in the second Test, losing just one of their 12 throws and pinching five of their hosts’. It was a similar story in the first Test as the French pack bossed the scrum and line-out.
The French pack also won the breakdown battle, slowing up Argentine possession and defending around the fringes with a ferocity that unsettled the Pumas. True, a tired, indisciplined Argentina were a shadow of the side that reached the World Cup semi-final last season, but they were out-muscled upfront and in their second Test their backs rarely got the ball to test the tourists outwide.
The French front-five will be a test for anyone next season but the weakness in the pack remains the back-row, particularly on the flank. Louis Picamoles at No 8 is top-class, and the move to Northampton will sharpen his fitness and make him even more of a threat from the base of the scrum.
But none of Raphaël Lakafia, Loann Goujon or Kevin Gourdon made much of an impact against Argentina. The trio are Top 14 flankers – big, bruising men but without the athletic, creative dynamism required at international level. In last season’s Six Nations Guy Noves went through Damien Chouly, Wenceslas Lauret, Yacouba Camara, Antoine Burban and Bernard Le Roux in his search for quality flankers but the hunt will continue next season.
The stage was set for Jules Plisson in the first Test. The Stade Francais fly-half was named captain but he failed to rise to the occasion as the Pumas ran out 30-19 winners. Noves dropped Plisson for the second Test, replacing him with Francois Trinh-Duc, but the veteran fly-half produced the sort of mediocre inconsistency that has characterised his eight-year international career.
Trinh-Duc has left Montpellier for Toulon and it may be that coming under the tutelage of Diego Dominguez will iron out the flaws in his game; but with Trinh-Duc the flaws are more mental than anything. Failing that, there’s always Clermont’s Camille Lopez. But France’s fly-half cupboard continues to be worryingly bare.
5. Gael Fickou
Fickou won his first cap for France a fortnight before he turned 19 and in the three years since he’s had his ups and downs in the Test arena. For a time he was moved to the wing, by both the then France coach Philippe Saint-Andre and his Toulouse boss Guy Noves.
Fortunately Noves, now he’s coaching Les Bleus, understands that Fickou’s best position is at 13, as he showed in his strong showing in the second Test against Argentina. Still only 22, Fickou is maturing physically as well as emotionally, and his vision, strength and deceptive speed will be a potent weapon for France next season.