Gerry Thornley: Mercurial French major obstacle to Irish World Cup hopes

Despite failing to defeat Ireland in four years, winning the group is not beyond Les Bleus

Louis Picamoles  makes a break during the  match between England and France at Twickenham on Saturday. The big-carrying Toulouse number eight was France’s standout player. Photograph:  Jordan Mansfield/Getty Images

Louis Picamoles makes a break during the match between England and France at Twickenham on Saturday. The big-carrying Toulouse number eight was France’s standout player. Photograph: Jordan Mansfield/Getty Images

 

The most interesting and revealing case study in these warm-up games from an Irish perspective are undoubtedly France. Ireland’s final pool game against Les Bleus in Cardiff on Sunday, October 11th, was always liable to be the most defining game under Joe Schmidt’s watch to date, and, as ever, France are providing plenty of material for a case study.

In the four-year tenure under Philippe Saint-André, and for the first time, France have not beaten Ireland in an entire World Cup cycle – the draws of 2012 and 2013 being followed by Ireland’s title-clinching 22-20 win in Paris two years ago and last season’s 18-11 win at the Aviva Stadium.

Furthermore, France have finished in the bottom half of the Six Nations in all of Saint-André’s four campaigns, even winning the wooden spoon in 2013. Last Saturday’s 19-14 defeat to England in Twickenham leaves them with only 15 wins out of 38 tests under Saint-André.

Nor did the defeat engender hope that fortunes are about to change under Saint-André, who will be replaced by Guy Noves after the World Cup.

Admittedly this may be the strongest and fittest French squad ever sent to a World Cup, following six weeks of intensive training, which incorporated a week-long camp in Tignes in the Alps, with 70 per cent of their focus heretofore on fitness, weights, strength and speed.

France finished much the stronger of the two sides, increasingly dismantling the English scrum, but this was effectively an English second-string pack.

Even so, France will clearly bring plenty of power to the World Cup, and reports in the French media that Louis Picamoles was tearing up trees in camp appeared particularly valid. lost much of last season due to a lung infection, but at Twickenham made the most carries (14), most metres (63), beat most defenders (six) and made most offloads (three).

Second Captains

Their sole try was off a line-out maul, but yet again there was not one spark of ingenuity from their back line. The training squad of 36 is top heavy on back- rowers and centres, and light on outside backs – with no place for the rejuvenated Maxime Medard, much less a creative midfielder like Maxime Mermoz.

So, three weeks from the World Cup, full-back Brice Dulin was asked to play on the wing for the first time, and against Anthony Watson, whose footwork left Dulin on his derriere. Similarly, Dulin’s replacement, Gael Fickou (a specialist centre), came on at wing for the first time.

Selling their soul

The supreme irony is that Les Bleus are being coached by Saint-André, Patrick Lagisquet and, in an advisory role, Serge Blanco, which in its pomp would have been a French outside three for the ages.

This week Saint-André and company are expected to play all the remaining 13 players who were not employed in Twickenham for next Saturday’s rematch at Stade de France, with the exception of the injured Thierry Dusautoir.

On Sunday, they will cull their squad from 36 to 31, as part of their agreement with the Top 14 clubs. Saint-André was also restricted to a squad of 36 for their training camp by the agreement with the clubs, preventing them from adding Stade Francais outhalf Jules Plisson.

And number 10 remains France’s most problematic position. The expectation is either François Trinh-Duc or Frederic Michalak will be culled. As the only goal- kicking outhalf in the squad, Michalak not only might be retained, but could be the first-choice 10 come that fateful meeting with Ireland in Cardiff. Given he is the second-choice outhalf at Toulon, and recalling how Laporte hauled him off early in the second half of Toulon’s European Challenge Cup semi-final against Leinster, that seems extraordinary.

Most vulnerable

Xavier ChiocciLoann Goujon

With only one more warm-up game, at home to Scotland on September 5th, France badly need a win this Saturday to restore confidence. And for all France’s apparent woes, it’s worth noting Les Bleus generally perform better in World Cup windows than in the Six Nations or summer tours, and have handsomely won all three World Cup meetings with Ireland.

It’s hard to see them winning the World Cup, although they were in worse order four years ago when losing to Tonga, and yet unluckily losing the final by a point. But beating Ireland and winning the group with their limited power game is by no means beyond them. gthornley@irishtimes.com

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