France faces England with untried halves pairing
PARIS (AP) — Looking to bounce back from the humiliation of last year’s wooden spoon, France coach Philippe Saint-Andre has made the risky move of choosing an untried halves pairing for Saturday’s opening Six Nations match against England.
Announcing his team Thursday, Saint-Andre went for scrumhalf Jules Plisson alongside flyhalf Jean-Marc Doussain. Both are 22 years old, and Plisson makes his international debut while Doussain has played only five times for France. He also picked lock Alexandre Flanquart — who has won only two international caps — to play alongside Pascal Pape in the second row.
“Jules has a lot of variety in his game, he had to start one day,” Saint-Andre said. “Jules is fully focused. Everything will be easier for him if his teammates make an impact going forward, if the forwards win their battles. So it’s up to our pack to make things easier for our halves pairing, which is young and talented.”
Saint-Andre will give the kicking duties to Doussain, adding that Flanquart’s selection is a strategic one because of his understanding with Pape, his Stade Francais teammate, and his ability to counter England in the lineouts.
More surprisingly still, is that Saint-Andre has left out flyhalf Francois Trinh-Duc from his squad, even though Trinh-Duc was arguably France’s best player in the corresponding fixture last year. France looked good for a win at Twickenham last year, leading 10-9 at the interval before being overpowered and losing 23-13 with Trinh-Duc taken off early into the second half.
Wesley Fofana and Mathieu Bastareaud give France a powerful midfield in what is expected to be a physical battle at Stade de France. But the deciding factor is once again likely to be who comes out on top in the forwards.
“We know from experience that the English have a powerful scrum. We know what to expect. Every time I’ve played against them the scrum has always been a big combat zone,” said veteran prop Nicolas Mas, who is set to win his 66th cap. “Last year we took them on well in the forwards, and we even thought we could win at Twickenham because we unsettled them so much.”
England’s young squad is growing in self-belief and experience under Stuart Lancaster and will want to make amends for a 30-3 defeat to Wales last year that cost the title and a Grand Slam.
“We had one day in Cardiff when it didn’t go as we would have wanted, but since then the focus has been on us improving,” lock Joe Launchbury said. “Hopefully we showed where we are in the autumn and we’ll continue to do that.”
While France has injury problems — inspirational captain Thierry Dusautoir and flyhalf Remi Tales are both out injured, while prolific winger Vincent Clerc is still lacking full fitness after a long-term knee injury — England has selection problems.
Lancaster pleaded with flyhalf Toby Flood to stay home for club and country, but had to axe him from his squad because Flood, with 60 caps has decided to leave English champion Leicester, which he captains, for Toulouse after the season.
The uncapped George Ford replaces him in the squad, while Lancaster handed debuts to outside center Luther Burrell and wing Jack Nowell for Saturday’s game.
Burrell has impressed throughout the season for Northampton, and starts ahead of Brad Barritt. Nowell has benefited from injuries to Marland Yarde and Christian Wade to seize the right wing spot from the axed Chris Ashton.
France is favorite to win the battle of the forwards, however, with a front five that can mix it with the world’s best on their day, and England are braced to withstand an early onslaught in the scrum.
“I’d say we’ve removed any lingering doubt over our physicality, but the question will continue to be asked,” Launchbury said. “We went to Argentina and played well there. We had three tough autumn matches and I don’t think anyone could say we lacked bite in those matches.”
France: Brice Dulin, Yoann Huget, Mathieu Bastareaud, Wesley Fofana, Maxime Medard, Jules Plisson, Jean-Marc Doussain; Louis Picamoles, Bernard Le Roux, Yannick Nyanga, Pascal Pape, Alexandre Flanquart, Nicolas Mas, Benjamin Kayser, Thomas Domingo.
Reserves: Dimitri Szarzewksi, Yannick Forestier, Rabah Slimani, Yoann Maestri, Antoine Burban, Damien Chouly, Maxime Machenaud, Gael Fickou.
England: Mike Brown, Jack Nowell, Luther Burrell, Billy Twelvetrees, Jonny May, Owen Farrell, Danny Care; Joe Marler, Dylan Hartley, Dan Cole, Joe Launchbury, Courtney Lawes, Tom Wood, Chris Robshaw (captain), Billy Vunipola.
Reserves: Tom Youngs, Mako Vunipola, Henry Thomas, Dave Attwood, Ben Morgan, Lee Dickson, Brad Barritt, Alex Goode.