Ntamack, Alldritt set for France's World Cup opener vs Pumas
TOKYO (AP) — France coach Jacques Brunel has favored youth by picking Romain Ntamack at flyhalf and Grégory Alldritt at No. 8 to face Argentina in the Rugby World Cup Pool C opener on Saturday.
The 20-year-old Ntamack, the son of former France winger Émile Ntamack, has made only eight test appearances. Despite that, he was selected over the more experienced Camille Lopez to combine in the halves with Antoine Dupont.
Brunel made another crucial pick at the back of the scrum in preferring Alldritt — who has three tries in seven test appearances — to veteran Louis Picamoles, who is appearing in his third World Cup.
Maxime Médard starts at fullback ahead of Thomas Ramos, who was selected among the reserves with Lopez and Picamoles. With Wesley Fofana injured, former rugby sevens winger Virimi Vakatawa will start at center alongside Gaël Fickou.
Rabah Slimani and Jefferson Poirot will start in the front row, as expected, on either side of hooker and captain Guilhem Guirado.
Both teams have points to prove, in a tough Pool C which also contains 2003 champion England, Tonga and the United States.
Coached by former standout hooker Mario Ledesma, two-time semifinalist Argentina has to stop a losing streak reaching 10 straight games since winning in Australia in last year's Rugby Championship. The Pumas came close to beating New Zealand for the first time and narrowly lost to Australia in the same tournament this season.
Three-time runner-up France has been on a downward slope after years of mediocrity, punctuated by a home loss to Fiji, a walloping 44-8 defeat away to England and one top-three finish in the Six Nations since losing the World Cup final in 2011.
Huget, who is aiming to his tally of 13 international tries, thinks the heavy criticism has been justified.
"It's normal given our results, we get what we deserve. Now, I think the squad is ready to honor the jersey, fight for the country," he said. "We want to show that a World Cup is different from the Six Nations or any tours, and that this team has talent."
A lot hangs on France beating Argentina, especially with a confident England looming large.
"But if you look back to 2011, with two losses France still got to the final," Huget said. "Anything can happen in this competition, that's what is beautiful about it."
France lost the 2007 third-place match to Argentina but won their previous encounter, 28-13 in November, and won 27-0 away in 2016.
Fickou pointed to weaknesses and strengths in Argentina's game.
"They have quick players who always have a lot of movement. Not always in the right way, but with a lot of commitment," Fickou said. "They keep the ball very well and for a very long time in midfield. They're very strong in this sector. We know we don't have any room for error; we must be present and very aggressive in the rucks."
France's attacking rucks are an ongoing weakness, and Fickou says "it's down to us to impose our style of play and our aggression."
That also means closing down Argentina's flyhalf Nicolás Sánchez — Fickou's club teammate at Stade Français.
"If we let him play, it will be very difficult to defend. He has a very good kicking game, he's very technical," Fickou said. "I think that if we put him under enormous pressure, that we're aggressive and if we manage to control him, we'll have controlled 50 percent of their team."
Kicking may prove decisive if the weather turns bad, with heavy downpours soaking Tokyo in recent days.
"There may be fog, rain too," Fickou said. "Controlling the ball is not easy when it rains, but we are prepared for all conditions."
France: Maxime Médard, Damian Penaud, Gaël Fickou, Virimi Vakatawa, Yoann Huget, Romain Ntamack, Antoine Dupont; Grégory Alldritt, Charles Ollivon, Wenceslas Lauret, Sebastien Vahaamahina, Arthur Iturria, Rabah Slimani, Guilhem Guirado (captain), Jefferson Poirot. Reserves: Camille Chat, Cyril Baille, Demba Bamba, Bernard Le Roux, Louis Picamoles, Maxime Machenaud, Camille Lopez, Thomas Ramos.