FRANCE coach Philippe Saint-Andre maintains, implausibly, that he would like to change the French stereotype of being unpredictable and turn his national side into a consistent title-winning machine, but then he goes and picks a team like he has for Murrayfield this week.
The former France winger and Sale and Toulon coach has railed against the difficulties of picking French sides when the leading teams in his country insist on filling them with overseas players. He stops short of full-on fury given that when at Toulon he was responsible for bringing in many of those foreigners now picking up salaries in the region of £50,000 per month.
But it has ensured that while he has a vast country of rugby talent to choose from, in stark contrast to his opposite number at Murrayfield this weekend, he may have less confidence in his charges being able to pull off a victory than Scott Johnson. The back row is new, the hooker is making his first start and the relatively inexperienced half-backs are coming together for the first time at the start of a Test match. As for goal-kicking, no-one in Les Bleus is doing the job for his club at present.
Saint-Andre knows that he has a great strength in depth and they remain in the race for the Six Nations title after beating England and Italy, but coming north after their biggest defeat to Wales in 64 years the coach was understandably nervous.
They arrived in Edinburgh with Saint-Andre defending his selections, both in terms of players picked in strange positions and some the French support were surprised to see left out.
The main surprise, to start Perpignan’s 6ft 7in, 19-stone lock Sébastien Vahaamahina at blindside flanker, had been planned for some time according to Saint-Andre, and he added that Clermont Auvergne pair Damien Chouly and Alexandre Lapandry were an obvious fit alongside the 22-year-old in the back row.
Changes were necessary after Yannick Nyanga followed former skippers Thierry Dusatoir and Fulgence Ouedraogo into the treatment room, suffering broken ribs in the defeat to Wales, and Louis Picamoles was left in France partly due to mocking the referee when he was sin-binned against Wales and also, apparently, due to his poor work-rate.
Julien Bonnaire is still in fine form for Clermont Auvergne, but retired from Test rugby in 2012, while Imanol Harinordoquy is still playing for Biarritz but has not played for France since the 2011 World Cup.
So, while Johnson has returned to arguably his biggest back row combination with David Denton and Kelly Brown restored alongside Johnnie Beattie, France have gone for two 6ft 4in backs rows in Chouly and Lapandry who are of similar weight to the Scotland centres. Of more relevance may be the fact that both are making their first Six Nations starts while Vahaamahina has never started a match for France, or his club Perpignan, in the back row.
Saint-Andre insisted: “We have been thinking about him at a number six since the beginning of the year so it’s been five weeks since we started to make him work at number six.
“He will bring some powerful ball-carrying to our game and also skills to the back of our line-out. We have a balance. Lapandry is a very active player, always close to the ball, and that’s why we have selected him.”
The coach has used a similar tack to cover the injury problems in the centre with Wesley Fofana the latest player ruled out by injury. He has disappointed many French supporters by leaving the latest boy wonder Gael Fickou on the bench but stated, with some credibility, that the blend of silky footballer Maxime Mermoz and wrecking ball outside centre Mathieu Bastareaud worked well when used at Toulon. Saint-Andre explained: “We trust him [Fickou] a lot but again at centre you have to think about players complementing each other and we need players with experience in the centre. It’s better for the team to associate two centres who play together at club level, but we don’t have any doubt about Gael’s gifts and he will play a part in this game and will be the future of the French team.”
With top hookers Dimitri Szarzewski and Ben Kayser injured, in comes Castres’ Brice Mach. At 27, he is no newcomer to the game, but he is to Test rugby, having only made his France debut off the bench against Wales. He is a bit taller and wider than his opponent Scott Lawson, but is as close to the Scot as any hooker in the championship so that should be a good contest.
His lineout throwing appears to have won him the nod over experienced Perpignan skipper Guilhelm Guirado and with three tall forwards in both sides there is little doubt the lineout will be a crucial battleground.
But if France win good ball there remain question-marks in the backs too, particularly with the hinge pairing and how they might use it. Scrum-half Maxime Machenaud is a small and skilful player but he has been out of favour behind Morgan Parra – who would have started but for a headbutting ban – and Jean-Marc Doussain, and last started for France last summer and in the Six Nations over a year ago, so the Racing Metro star may feel he has a point to prove.
He is partnered by Jules Plisson, the 22-year-old fly-half from Stade Francais who made his international debut against England last month. Again, he is a talented, skilful performer but the pair have not started a game together before and have just the last 40 demoralising minutes against Wales under their belts as a partnership. Machenaud plays second fiddle to Jonny Sexton as goal-kicker at Racing Metro but with Sexton in the Irish camp did enjoy a warm-up with 15 of Racing’s 25 points in their win over Castres at the weekend.
The changes do not stop there with Toulouse wing Maxime Médard being preferred to try-scoring newcomer Hugo Bonneval to create another new back three trio. But, while these changes have unnerved French supporters, the fact is that this XV still boasts 349 Tests between them and an average age of nearly 27, and there is genuine quality if they are allowed to play.
Saint-Andre cannot wonder at the difficulties France have in creating consistency when no two teams are ever the same, but, that said, the squad arrive in the Scottish capital with a confidence stemming from a run of seven consecutive victories over the Scots since the 20-16 reverse in 2006, and believing that if they play near to their best it could be enough to right their ship and bring the Six Nations trophy back within sight.
v Scotland at Murrayfield tomorrow, kick-off 5pm
15 B Dulin (Castres)
14 Y Huget (Toulouse)
13 M Bastareaud (Toulon)
12 M Mermoz (Toulon)
11 M Medard (Toulouse)
10 J Plisson (Stade Francais)
9 M Machenaud (Racing Metro)
1 T Domingo (Clermont)
2 B Mach (Castres)
3 N Mas (Montpellier)
4 Y Maestri (Toulouse)
5 P Pape (Stade Francais, capt)
6 S Vahaamahina (Perpignan)
7 A Lapandry (Clermont)
8 D Chouly (Clermont)
G Guirado (Perpignan), V Debaty (Clermont Auvergne), R Slimani (Stade Francais), A Flanquart (Stade Francais), A Claassen (Castres), J-M Doussain (Toulouse), R Tales (Castres), G Fickou (Toulouse).