France coach Jacques Brunel has drafted in three young musketeers from Toulouse to restore some pride in the blue jersey following the 44-8 thumping at Twickenham.
Antoine Dupont and Romain Ntamack start at Nos 9 and 10 respectively for Saturday’s match against Scotland in Paris despite boasting a total of 13 caps and just three starts between them. Oh, and Ntamack usually plays inside centre.
The third Toulouse musketeer is full-back Thomas Ramos, who has just 40 minutes of international action under his belt.
The inexperience of the French half-backs may well influence the decision that Scotland coach Gregor Townsend has to make at stand-off between Peter Horne and Adam Hastings. Following the loss of his three best backs (Stuart Hogg, Finn Russell and Duncan Taylor) Townsend may opt for the greater experience of Horne over Hastings’ attacking threat, to give the visitors a small advantage in one area because the makeshift Scots don’t have much else going for them.
Highly rated Dupont is not the usual waif-like, orchestra conductor scrum-half so beloved of French rugby but a chunky monkey who likes to run at the opposition. More Gary Armstrong than Greig Laidlaw.
To make way for his young half-backs, Brunel has jettisoned 92 caps of experience belonging to Camille Lopez and Morgan Parra. At 30 odd years old, they should be in their prime but were highly critical of the French coaches after the England game. Brunel insisted the outburst had nothing to do with the fact that neither was in the 23-strong matchday squad for Saturday. “The halves didn’t perform as we expected against England,” said the French coach when he announced the team yesterday. “We deserve to change things after a defeat like the one against England.”
And on the subject of playing a 19-year-old midfielder in an alien position? “It isn’t a problem,” Brunel said. “Having spoken to him, I know he doesn’t really have a preference. “He plays centre for Toulouse but at the same time he’s the one who organises their play. If we hadn’t any doubts we wouldn’t have picked him.”
The other new face from Toulouse, full-back Ramos, is slight but speedy and has the ability to steal this show if he can get hands on the ball. At just 5ft 11in, Ramos is a lot smaller than his likely opposite number Blair Kinghorn and is sure to be tested under the high ball. But this season he has shone brightest in an attack-minded Toulouse team which showed they possess a full-court game by taking on Racing 92 on Sunday, when Finn Russell took that knee to his head, and beating their Paris hosts at their own brand of running rugby. Ramos actually plays a little like Stuart Hogg, injecting pace from the back in broken play and he can do a shift at No 10 if needs be.
Against that, Ramos is also horribly inexperienced. He is 23 with just 40 minutes of international rugby to his name, an unhappy 40 minutes at that, after replacing Yoann Huget at half-time against England. Huget returns to the wing, where he looks happiest. Damian Penaud moves from left to right wing to accommodate him and Gael Fickou returns to the French midfield, where he usually plays, alongside Mathieu Bastareaud. Yes, the big Basta is still there. Like a junkie back for one more hit before quitting, coach Brunel can’t find the wherewithal to jettison the big lummock.
Every side needs power across the team and Bastareaud’s experience may help settle the new kids on the block but the Toulon centre is fast becoming a caricature of himself. He is a throwback to another era, big but glacially slow and a speed bump in the backline should France want to move the ball quickly to the dangerous duo on the wings.
Admittedly, Bastareaud has done damage to Scotland in the past, but his two tries at Murrayfield in 2010 were as good as it gets. In 52 Tests, the big fella has managed five tries, two against Scotland, another two against Italy, one against South Africa.
Overall, Bastareaud boasts one try every ten Tests. For Scotland’s first-choice thirteen, Huw Jones, when he is available, the numbers are one try every two Tests.
For statistics fans Bastareaud and Fickou were last picked together in the autumn series when France lost to Fiji. Yet everything else will be rendered irrelevant if the three young musketeers can rekindle that “all for one, one for all” spirit.