The task confronting Les Bleus is daunting. If they wish to start the 2017 Six Nations with a win they must beat an England side unbeaten since October 2015. They must also overcome their Twickenham bogey, a venue where they’ve won just once in the Six Nations this century. The size of the challenge has increased as their injury list has mounted, coach Guy Novès looking on in dismay as Raphael Lakafia, Eddy Ben Arous, Jefferson Poirot, Henry Chavancy, Camille Chat and Wesley Fofana have all withdrawn.
France forwards’ coach Yannick Bru described losing Poirot and Ben Arous as a “heavy” blow, two props he values as much for their tackle count and their work at the breakdown as for their set-piece experience. That means France will start with the gargantuan Uini Atonio on the tighthead and one of Xavier Chiocci or Cyril Baille on the loosehead. Neither will frighten the English. Baille, the 23-year-old Toulouse prop is inexperienced at Test level and was dropped after making his first start against Australia in November. As for Chiocci, he’s not fit enough for an international front-row forward.
Behind the front-row, France will field a big, bruising back five. Clermont’s Sébastien Vahaamahina is expected to wear the No 4 jersey and his partner will be one of Yoann Maestri, Julien Le Devedec or Arthur Iturria.
The 22-year-old Iturria is some talent, a second row in the mould of Joe Launchbury, and he’s supplanted his Clermont teammate, Paul Jedrasiak, in the France squad this season. He’s uncapped, however, and Novès may decide Twickenham isn’t the place to blood a promising but raw lock forward. Maestri has never been the most dynamic of locks, and age and injury have further reduced his mobility, but Novès might turn to his experience, knowing him so well as he does from his time coaching Toulouse. Le Devedec would be the wise choice to pack down alongside Vahaamahina, giving France size, agility and explosive ball-carrying clout.
Louis Picamoles will start at No 8 with Kevin Gourdon at seven and either Damien Chouly or Loann Goujon on the blind-side. Goujon offers more in power and hard yards with ball in hand, but Novès, like his predecessor, Philippe Saint-Andre, values Chouly’s presence in the set-piece, particularly the line-out.
Gourdon, the La Rochelle openside, had the game of his life against the All Blacks in November, earning high praise from Novès who said that while he’d never harboured doubts about his intelligence and technique, he was less sure of Gourdon’s mental strength. The challenge now for Gourdon, who won his first cap on the summer tour to Argentina, is to bring the same intensity to each Test.
Behind the pack two positions in particular will be exercising Novès – scrum-half and inside centre. Will he partner Maxime Machenaud with Camille Lopez at half-back or plump for the exciting Baptiste Serin, the new darling of the French media who was voted the Top 14 “Revelation” of last season? France likes to elevate a player above his team-mates, and the 22-year-old Bordeaux scrum-half joins Frederic Michalak, Sebastien Chabal and Francois Trinh-Duc as the latest Gallic rugby idol. Monday’s Midi Olympique devoted an entire page to the “phenomenon” and it was left to Pierre Mignoni, head coach of Lyon and one of Serin’s predecessors in the France No 9 shirt, to sound a note of caution. “We mustn’t ask too much of him,” warned Mignoni. “And above all, we shouldn’t expect him to revolutionise French rugby.”
Four years ago Gaël Fickou was the billed as the Bleu on the brink of stardom, but it hasn’t worked out that way for the Toulouse centre. It’s hard to credit he’s still only 22 but since making his France debut in the 2013 Six Nations, Fickou has started just ten Tests. A victim of PSA’s selectorial whims, Fickou is nonetheless guilty of inconsistency and losing his focus during matches. Yet he’s lavishly gifted and one can’t help thinking that this confidence player just needs a run of starts to bring out his talent. Fofana’s loss could be Fickou’s gain – and France’s – and if Les Bleus are to have any chance of beating England on Saturday it will be through the pace, guile and vision of Fickou and not the battering ram style of Mathieu Bastareaud or Yann David.