New France coach backs young guns to impress against Italy
PARIS (AP) — France is banking on the talent of tomorrow to heal the scars of the recent past.
Under new coach Guy Noves, France heads into its Six Nations opener against Italy on Saturday desperate to shake off the stigma of a fraught Rugby World Cup.
The French set records in their last outing in October: The 62-13 spanking by New Zealand in the quarterfinals was the biggest ever defeat in the World Cup knockout stages, and the most points France has ever conceded.
"The new generation has to show that France is not dead," says prop Rabah Slimani, one of only five surviving starters from the loss to New Zealand.
Defeat to the All Blacks was acceptable, but not the hands on hips, missed tackles, dropped heads, and overwhelming sense that Les Tricolores gave up.
That brought the curtain down on some fine careers - including for captain Thierry Dusautoir, lock Pascal Pape and prop Nicolas Mas - and left behind a lineup that may cause fans at Stade de France on Saturday to look up an encyclopedia.
"I was honored to play alongside Thierry, Nico, Pascal," adds Slimani, now a senior player despite only 21 caps. "We haven't proved anything. It's our turn to do so."
Noves' plan so far has been to pick a squad with the 2019 World Cup in mind, freeing them to be ambitious, while at the same time asking the fans for a little patience.
Against Italy, he's starting four new caps, including winger Virimi Vakatawa, a sevens star who has not played 15s since December 2013. There are three more uncapped players in the reserves, and the halves pairing of Sebastien Bezy (0 caps) and Jules Plisson (6) is untested but reunites two players from the junior ranks.
France shouldn't be boring.
Such is the experimental nature of this side that Noves has left it to Bezy and Plisson to decide who takes the penalties.
Noves, a decorated coach with Toulouse at domestic and European level, backs his side to impress.
"They're young, maybe too young you might say," he says. "But what I know for sure is that they won't let us down in terms of their attitude."
If his early plans backfire, Noves insists inexperience won't be used as an excuse.
"We won't hide behind that," he says. "When a player has potential, you have to pick him. These youngsters are the future of the France team."
Italy would potentially have been a decent first test if it wasn't beset by injuries to 10 regulars.
Departing coach Jacques Brunel will start four uncapped players almost by necessity: Back David Odiete, wing Mattia Bellini, prop Andrea Lovotti, and hooker Ornel Gega.
Another two uncapped players are in the reserves, and backup center Kelly Haimona is back for the first time since last year's Six Nations, where he broke his arm and had to miss the World Cup.
Ireland at home next week promises to be a far bigger test for France. The new faces and new outlook just need matches and time to bed in.
"We haven't beaten Ireland for four years, the Welsh had a great World Cup despite several major injuries," lock Yoann Maestri says. "The English are coming back with a lot of desire and the Scottish would have beaten (World Cup) finalist Australia if not for a questionable decision. We have to stay humble."
France: Maxime Medard, Hugo Bonneval, Gael Fickou, Jonathan Danty, Virimi Vakatawa, Jules Plisson, Sebastien Bezy; Louis Picamoles, Damien Chouly, Wenceslas Lauret, Yoann Maestri, Paul Jedrasiak, Rabah Slimani, Guilhem Guirado (captain), Eddy Ben Arous. Reserves: Camille Chat, Uini Atonio, Jefferson Poirot, Alexandre Flanquart, Yacouba Camara, Maxime Machenaud, Jean-Marc Doussain, Maxime Mermoz.
Italy: David Odiete, Leonardo Sarto, Michele Campagnaro, Gonzalo Garcia, Mattia Bellini, Carlo Canna, Edoardo Gori; Sergio Parisse (captain), Alessandro Zanni, Francesco Minto, Marco Fuser, George Fabio Biagi, Lorenzo Cittadini, Ornel Gega, Andrea Lovotti. Reserves: Davide Giazzon, Matteo Zanusso, Martin Castrogiovanni, Valerio Bernabo, Andries van Schalkwyk, Guglielmo Palazzani, Kelly Haimona, Luke McLean.