Brunel’s youthful selection have eyes on home success
Scott Burton is the Racing Post’s French correspondent
To quote 1980s cinematic anti-hero Ferris Bueller: “life moves pretty fast.” So if you haven’t been paying rapt attention to events in France since the autumn internationals, a quick canter through the headlines might come as quite a shock.
Having scraped a 23-23 draw against Japan in what would prove to be his final game in charge, Guy Noves survived just a further month until being fired as head coach and selector, officially at least because of what was judged a disastrous run of results.
Leaving aside how you go about interpreting France’s form since finishing third in the 2017 Six Nations, it is clear that Noves suffered at the hands of former head coach and now FFR president Bernard Laporte.
The breakdown of their relationship seemed to many as important as what was happening on the pitch when it came to Laporte announcing, two days after Christmas, that Noves was “no longer the man for the situation”.
As if to emphasise the point, his successor is Jacques Brunel, who served as forwards coach for Les Bleus during the eight years of Laporte’s spell in charge of France.
But time has galloped on since then. Do try to keep up!
Barely had the ink dried on Brunel’s first squad list when Mathieu Bastareaud was suspended for alleged homophobic abuse directed at Sebastian Negri during Toulon’s Champions cup win over Benetton.
Then on just the second day of the French squad camp to prepare for the Six Nations, the National Rugby Centre at Marcoussis was raided by plain-clothes police investigating alleged financial irregularities involving Laporte and Montpellier president Mohed Altrad.
Brunel was forced to spend much of his subsequent media conference attempting to provide assurance that having Marcoussis swarming with cops was in no way a distraction from the task at hand.
So what can we expect when Brunel’s first selection run-out against Ireland at the Stade de France?
The former Italy coach will have had a fortnight to instill some sort of gameplan, while his squad selection is a blend of the old and the not-quite-new.
Starting at home is a plus for France but the fact that they will be playing the team ranked third in the world following a shambolic preparation and with a trip to Murrayfield to come just eight days later should more than cancel out that positive.
In terms of playing style, Brunel’s sides have usually tended towards a fairly simple and direct gameplan and that is certainly what the 64-year-old has preached in front of the media since his appointment.
Reports from Marcoussis suggest that the players have been encouraged to speak openly about what works and what doesn’t, with senior individuals leading groups among either the forwards or the backs on specific areas of play.
Midi-Olympique reported on one such session led by Sebastien Vahaamahina on defending around the fringes of the scrum, while the paper also pointed to a “lounge meeting” last Friday for all the backs to discuss defensive strategy for the Ireland game.
In terms of selection, Brunel’s original squad featured six players discarded by Noves during the autumn, while the two biggest surprises were the recall of wing Benjamin Fall and scrum-half Morgan Parra, who hasn’t worn the French jersey since the 2015 World Cup.
Parra’s subsequent withdrawal with a knee injury – which means he is out of the reckoning until at least round three against Italy – further complicates the half-back situation in a team that has struggled to find a settled combination under any of Laporte’s successors.
Originally discarded by Brunel, Baptiste Serin has been called up as Parra’s replacement and might come under consideration alongside 19-year-old outside half Matthieu Jalibert, given that they both play their club rugby at Union Bordeaux-Begles, coached until the beginning of the year by one Jacques Brunel.
But Serin – a quicksilver running threat of a scrum-half who offered Noves glimpses of his talent during the last Six Nations campaign – was not necessarily a favourite of Brunel’s at UBB and he started just twice in combination with Jalibert in 18 games from the start of the season until Jacques received the call from his old friend Bernard.
The other youthful half-back tandem which has survived from the Noves era that of Antoine Dupont and Anthony Belleau, with the Toulon outside-half looking a likely starter against Ireland.
Racing 92’s Maxime Machenaud is the third scrum-half and, having made his debut under Philippe Saint-Andre in 2012, is both the oldest head and the most reliable distributor available.
Elsewhere Brunel’s decision to drop Louis Picamoles places additional carrying responsibilities on Stade Rochelais flanker Kevin Gourdon, who in two seasons has made himself virtually indispensable to France but whose effectiveness will be easily limited by the better sides unless France can evolve an effective trio to share the load in the back row.
Teddy Thomas has finally put together a run of injury-free appearances and has deceptive speed for a wing of his size, while his Racing 92 teammate Virimi Vakatawa will be a threat on the opposite flank.
Brunel has pledged to put France back to its habitual position of “contesting the Six Nations down to the final week and being among the teams that can win it”.
That might be a considerable stretch given the hurried preparation, the lack of matchwinning confidence and – perhaps his cruellest inheritance from the years of constant tinkering under Lievremont, Saint-Andre and Noves – the lack of experience he can call on.
In a squad of 32 players, only captain and hooker Guilhem Guirado has passed 50 caps, while of the rest only Machenaud has more than 30 appearances to his name.
Brunel’s club record with Perpignan and Bordeaux has heavily favoured performance at home over winning away and, whatever he says publicly, it will be the matches in Paris and Marseille against Ireland, Italy and England that he really targets, not least of which because he has two weeks with the squad ahead of each of those fixtures.
On current form that might make the transalpine derby against Italy in the Stade Velodrome not only a battle to win the Giuseppe Garibaldi Trophy, but to avoid the wooden spoon.
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