DCSIMG

Old friends, new blood

WHEN new coach Marc Lièvremont took over the reins of the French XV after the World Cup, it quickly became apparent that he was determined to make some bold decisions. But until the former international flanker held his first training run at Marcoussis last Monday, nobody was aware of just how bold they would be.

But Livremont is not interested in taking half-measures, and for his first game in charge of Les Bleus, he and his assistant coaches Emile Ntamack and Didier Retire have thrown caution to the wind.

Despite having a number of experienced players in the side – the average age is still 26 – the French team at Murrayfield today comprises six new caps who have never represented their country at senior level, plus two other players – second rower Loic Jaquet and flanker Fulgence Ouedraogo – who will be making their RBS Six Nations dbut.

Indeed, Ouedraogo, along with his club-mate, Franois Trinh-Duc are perhaps the two players who best symbolise the new spirit of the French XV. The dynamic flanker Ouedraogo has just one cap to his name, after coming on as a 54th minute replacement against the All Blacks in a 61-10 trouncing in Wellington last year, while Trinh-Duc will be making his international dbut, at the key post of "demi d'ouverture" (stand-off).

Both are 21 years of age, both play for Gregor Townsend's up-and-coming old club Montpellier, currently lying in fifth place in the Top-14, and for today's match both have been preferred to players with a solid background in international rugby.

Students of French society may also see them as perfect symbols of France's colonial past – Ouedraogo was born in Ougadougou (the capital of Burkina Faso), Trinh-Duc has Vietnamese heritage through his paternal grandfather – as well as the country's multi-ethnic future.

But in a more down-to-earth fashion, the two youngsters are the incarnation of Livremont's desire to break with the past, to reward in-form players, and to establish the foundations of a team to go to the 2011 Rugby World Cup in New Zealand.

Their appearance together today even has a Boy's Own magic to it, as Trinh-Duc and Ouedraogo have been playing club rugby together since the age of six. They first met playing mini rugby for Pic Saint-Loup, a small club lost in the grape vines north of Montpellier, before moving together to the Montpellier club.

"We have come a long way together, we have been playing in the same team for 15 years, and being selected together for the Scotland match makes it even more significant for us," noted Ouedraogo during the week.

Although there were strong indications even before Wednesday's team announcement that Trinh-Duc would get the nod ahead of David Skrela at fly-half, few, if any, French observers would have gambled on Ouedraogo of Ouagadougou being picked ahead of Julien Bonnaire in the back row. Bonnaire, after all, is France's best lineout forward, he was consistently one of the best performers at the World Cup, and with 37 caps to his name, he brings certain guarantees at international level.

But Livremont and Co have clearly gone for a more complementary back-row, they want to use Ouedraogo's agility and his speed to the break-down. And they want to see how the youngster will perform against a quality back-row like Scotland's.

A member of France's world champion under-21 team in 2006, Ouedraogo is no stranger either to the French national training centre at Marcoussis, nor to the methods of Ntamack and Retire, who were the coaches of the successful U-21 campaign. "That is definitely an element in our favour," predicted Ouedraogo earlier in the week. "We know the coaches and we know the type of game plan they want to implement. In some ways they are very demanding, but in others, they leave the players a lot of freedom."

As for Franois Trinh-Duc, despite not sharing in his mate's success with the French U-21 team in 2006, he is clearly one of the bright young hopes for French rugby. Gregor Townsend remembers seeing him as a raw 17 year-old, when the Scottish legend was playing at Montpellier in 2004-05.

"The first time I saw him, I remember thinking that he looked a good player," recalls Townsend. "He didn't have one particular talent which stood out, it wasn't just his speed, his kicking or his ability to break the line, he just seemed to have a good all-round game. Although he was young, he just seemed to have that awareness – a good eye for where the space was, when to pass the ball, or when to take the gap."

Townsend may not have seen much of Trinh-Duc this season, but those impressions from four years ago describe exactly the spark that the young stand-off has brought to Montpellier this season.

Not only has Trinh-Duc shown the ability to control the game with his field kicking, but his attacking flair and his ability to beat a man have seen him produce some spectacular rugby for his club. In two games against a couple of France's heavy-weight teams, Clermont-Auvergne and Perpignan, he scored three superb individual tries, taking a half-gap and breaking three or four tackles before dotting down.

"The coaches want us to play a less stereotyped, more ambitious style of game, and to use our initiative on attack," said Trinh-Duc, who was also coached by Ntamack in the 2007 U-21 French side. "That suits me perfectly, because I try to play in an instinctive way. I am an instinctive type of player, which can be a quality or it can be a defect, and sometimes I tend to get a bit carried away. But I'll just try and fit it in with team around me."

France's young play-maker, who will no doubt encounter difficult conditions at Murrayfield today, is only too aware of what happened to one of his predecessors in the French No.10 shirt. Five years ago, Frdric Michalak was also hailed as the new Messiah at fly-half for France, but despite his undoubted talent, he never achieved the degree of consistency required at international level.

"Of course I am aware of what happened with Frdric, and the way he went from hero to zero," says Trinh-Duc. "That helps me keep my feet on the ground, and you can never take anything for granted. I just hope I can make a name for myself, without being compared to older players."

For Gregor Townsend, however, there is no doubt that Trinh-Duc has the potential to go a long way with Les Bleus. "He's got what it takes, and above all, he is a true stand-off, much more so than Michalak," claims the flying Scotsman.

So, keep your eyes on Franois Trinh-Duc at Murrayfield today, and if he makes it through a gap, which he will certainly try to do, don't be surprised if by some telepathic magic, you see his old mate Fulgence Ouedraogo materialise at his shoulder.

• Ian Borthwick is a senior rugby writer with L'Equipe in Paris.

 
 
 

Back to the top of the page