CASTRES, FRANCE – As Les Bleus look to avenge a dismal summer tour of Australia on Saturday’s at Stade de France, I have three questions I’d like to ask head coach Philippe Saint-Andre if I got the chance.
Question One: Have you ANY idea, whatsoever, Mr Saint-Andre, as to who will play at 9 and 10 in next year’s Rugby World Cup?
You would expect, less than a year out from the big quadrennial tournament, that international managers would – for the most part – have a pretty clear idea of their ideal starting XV, and that with just eight matches between now and the big kick-off they would be working to get that team to the peak of physical and tactical excellence.
And you would also expect that, simply by watching, reasonably smart rugby journalists would have something more than an inkling of what was going on behind the reveal-nothing eyes of the national coach.
Sure, some tinkering around the edges still needs to happen – but key positions, such as nine and 10, would be if not set in stone then certainly secured firmly in rapidly drying cement.
At least, you might if you were thinking of just about any national coach other than France’s Philippe Saint-Andre. Last week’s 40-15 victory in Marseille over a weakened Fiji was notable for two reasons.
First, it was Les Bleus first win in four matches.
Second, Toulon’s Sebastian Tillous-Borde and Clermont’s Camille Lopez made up the 13th (count them) starting halfback pairing of the Saint-Andre era – which stretches all the way back, in case you’ve forgotten, to December 2011. Just after the last World Cup.
That fact alone seems to indicate that the coach still has no clear idea who will play at the crucial axis. Then there’s this. On the bench, South African Rory Kockott was waiting impatiently to make his international debut after qualifying to play for Les Bleus on residency grounds.
When Kockott came on to replace Tillous-Borde with about 10 minutes left on the clock, he formed yet another new French international halfback pairing with Castres clubmate Remi Tales.
The good news is, though, that – finally – Saint-Andre is playing a scrum-half at scrum-half and a fly-half at fly-half. Who knows – this picking people to play in their preferred position may just catch on…
Question Two: When, Mr Saint-Andre, are you give Wesley Fofana and Gael Fickou another chance to play together in midfield?
Two of the most talented attacking centres in French rugby have barely played together for Les Bleus. Their debut pairing was last November against Tonga.
A year later, and 10 months after his heroics against England at Stade de France in the Six Nations, Fickou isn’t even in the French reckoning.
It’s not entirely the player or the national coach’s fault. Fickou has been seriously messed about at Toulouse . He’s in the side, he’s out of it. When he’s in, he plays at 12 or 14. Or 15. He’s out of sorts and out of confidence. I’ve never seen a player look less happy about scoring a try.
That try against England should have heralded the arrival of Gael Fickou. Instead, Saint-Andre has decided the way forward in midfield is big and bulky.
It’s sort of hard to argue when he can point to blunt instrument Mathieu Bastareaud, or last week’s impressive debutant Alexandre Dumoulin of Racing Metro. Or the LNR’s young player of the year Remi Lamerat. All are excellent players, of that there’s no doubt. But – and this is really rather the point – none of them are Gael Fickou.
He’s arguably the French rugby talent of his generation.
Here’s a strange idea. Leaving aside France’s perennial halfback problem, why not have Fofana and Fickou in midfield, with Teddy Thomas and Yoann Huget on the wing and – when he’s fit again – Brice Dulin at fullback. That’s most of a backline that would scare most opponents. With Clermont team-mates Parra and Lopez at nine and 10, who knows?
Question Three: When will you settle on your team, Mr Saint-Andre?
At first glance, this may seem an odd question, given this is the November international season, and wholesale squad changes are de rigeur from one match to the next, but Saint-Andre’s constant and nauseating team tinkering makes the announcement of the team to face Australia this weekend particularly surprising.
You see, the starting XV is exactly the same XV that started against Fiji last week.
No changes at all. Not one. And that’s really strange.
For the first time in his tenure as France coach, Saint-Andre has named the same starting side for two matches in a row – though, admittedly, he has indicated that there will be a few different faces on the bench.
It’s a huge vote of confidence in three new Bleus. Racing Metro flyer Teddy Thomas marked his first start with a try, his clubmate Dumoulin was strong in midfield, while Bayonne fullback Scott Spedding, who came in as a late replacement for the injured Dulin, was a solid presence at the back, and his prowess and power with the boot eased the kicking pressure on Lopez.
So, for Saturday’s match against Australia at Stade de France, Saint-Andre has named what, for him, is a settled side. It probably won’t last.
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