Saint-André’s changes have whiff of tinkering about them

France coach not keen to give too much away ahead of Paris showdown with Ireland

Young French  centre Gael Fickou will line out opposite Brian O’Driscoll  at Stade de France. Photograph:  David Rogers/Getty Images

Young French centre Gael Fickou will line out opposite Brian O’Driscoll at Stade de France. Photograph: David Rogers/Getty Images

 

France coach Philippe Saint-André was in good spirits yesterday as he announced his team to face Ireland but one remark about needing to be cautious in the presence of Irish journalists hinted he may be feeling under pressure.

Among four changes to France’s starting 15 for tomorrow’s game is the inclusion of Louis Picamoles, albeit as blindside flanker, with Damien Chouly continuing in the number eight role.

The decision is not up there with lock Sebastien Vahaamahina being named in the back row, like against Scotland, but it will surely continue comparisons between Saint-André and the notoriously frequent tinkering of his predecessor, Marc Lièvremont.

When asked whether Picamoles and Chouly would shift positions during the game, Saint-André indicated he would rather keep the opposition camp guessing.

“Some alteration”
“There will be some alternation,” he said. “But I can’t tell you everything because there are Irish journalists here.

“There will be alternation between Damien and Louis. But it’ll still be a powerful backrow, with one player who sticks to the ball and Damien, who is the leader of the lineout, even if you’re going to say to me the lineout didn’t work well in Scotland.

“I’d agree with you but in Scotland it was more there were four or five crooked throws than the jumpers needed to be called into question.”

The return of fit-again hooker Dimitri Szarzewski should help their set-piece, while Jules Plisson was left out of the 23-man squad despite starting the previous four matches.

Saint-André said the Stade Français player’s statistics in defence against Scotland were “not sufficient at international level”, indicating it was a strategic decision to bring in Rémi Talès of Castres at 10.

That judgment had a knock-on effect, with a better defensive outhalf convincing Saint-André that Gael Fickou could play at inside centre.

It will be the first time the Toulouse teenager has started a Six Nations match.

“He’s in form and he has speed,” Saint-André said. “We know Ireland put a huge amount of effort into their game so we’ll need to see him express his talent from the beginning. I think offensively, he can bring us some really interesting solutions.”

Saint-André later said that it was perhaps fitting that Fickou should play in Brian O’Driscoll’s final game.

“It’s maybe a nice picture,” he said. “O’Driscoll, who has a lot of experience, against a very, very young kid but who has so much talent. It will be a great experience for him to be in front of O’Driscoll.”

As for the Irish centre, Saint-André said that after studying video footage of Ireland’s matches he believes O’Driscoll is in “top form.”

“He could have been French because he has incredible flair,” the former Toulon head coach said.

“He has the skills of Jo Maso and the speed of [former French wing Patrice] ]Lagisquet. I think we said this because we saw him come the first time to the Stade de France and score a hat-trick and we said ‘Bloody hell, why was he not born in France?’ It’s not that we’re jealous – but maybe we are a little bit envious.”

Meanwhile, French flanker Alexandre Lapandry says that knowing Joe Schmidt from the coach’s days as backs coach at Clermont Auvergne, will help the home side tomorrow.

“Very, very good coach”
“I think he’s a very, very good coach and you can see all that he’s done for Ireland,” the 24-year-old said. “I think I recognise Joe Schmidt’s game a little bit. I’m not going to say everything I noticed but I saw two or three aspects of their game where you have the impression that they were doing it the way we do at Clermont.

“That could be useful to us, absolutely. And then we’ve got to know the Leinster pack quite well too.”

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