FRANCE coach Philippe Saint-Andre has followed his Scottish counterpart by handing a debut to one of his country’s most promising young second rows, but has attracted further criticism by sticking with stand-off Frederic Michalak.
Into the team comes 21-year-old Perpignan lock Sebastien Vahaamahina, who is 6ft 7in and 18st 10lbs and a year younger than Scottish debutant Grant Gilchrist. He replaces Christophe Samson, while South African Antoine Claassen replaces Yannick Nyanga at flanker for his first Test start.
Both moves are designed to increase the power in the French pack on what is expected to be a wet night.
In one other change that will not gladden the hearts of Scotland supporters, battering ram centre Mathieu Bastareaud takes over from Florian Fritz, who is nursing a foot infection. Three years ago, Bastareaud was a one-man destroyer of the Scots with two tries at Murrayfield. He will form a potent blend in midfield with Wesley Fofana.
However, Michalak’s inability to launch his back line in this championship remains the big talking point in France. The 30-year-old playmaker is a skilled performer and was a key figure in France’s autumn series wins over Argentina, Australia and Samoa but he is playing scrum-half for Toulon, alongside Jonny Wilkinson and has struggled to find form at stand-off in the Six Nations.
His selection over Francois Trinh-Duc, has been blamed by many commentators for the team’s failure to win a single match so far.
That was underlined further when Saint-Andre did start with the familiar half-back pairing of Morgan Parra and Trinh-Duc against England last month, only to take them off when France looked to be on the verge of a famous Twickenham victory and watch his side slide to defeat with Michalak errors at the heart of their demise.
In truth, Saint-Andre does not have a bounty of stand-offs to choose from, with the position occupied by foreign players at many Top 14 clubs.
Saint-Andre said: “You have to lose to build your team. I doubt that the people who cheered him [Michalak] in November will boo him on Saturday when he sets foot on the Stade de France. We know how important he is within the squad.”
France lost their opening three games to Italy, England and Wales by close margins but picked up some pride in fighting back from 13-3 down to draw 13-13 with Ireland.
Saint-Andre added: “We can’t be happy about our Six Nations, but I feel there is pride in this team. We were 13-3 down in Ireland and managed to come back and almost won the game. I just want them to be able to go for it for a whole game.” A key figure in that will be Parra, the Clermont Auvergne scrum-half, whose goal-kicking has been crucial to France in the past, but not always consistent. It appears that Michalak will start as goal-kicker tomorrow but Parra is hopeful that his side can use the second-half against Ireland as a springboard in front of their own support.
“When you play in front of your fans, you want to do something special,” he said. “We have to play with the same continuity that we showed in the second half in Dublin, but we have to hold on to the ball because otherwise we’ll be doing a lot of chasing. The Scots like to play and we’re expecting a tough game.”
Scotland have not beaten France in six years nor won in Paris since Gary Armstrong’s Five Nations-winning side of 1999, while defeat for France would consign them to a first Six Nations wooden spoon.
15 Yoann Huget
14 Vincent Clerc
13 Mathieu Bastareaud
12 Wesley Fofana
11 Maxime Médard
10 Frederic Michalak
9 Morgan Parra
1 Thomas Domingo
2 Benjamin Kayser
3 Nicolas Mas
4 Sebastien Vahaamahina
5 Yoann Maestri
6 Antonie Claassen
7 Thierry Dusautoir (capt)
8 Louis Picamoles
Subs: Guirado, V Debaty, L Ducalcon, C Samson, Y Nyanga, M Machenaud, F Trinh-Duc, F Fritz or G Fickou.