France looks to Fickou to prove spark vs. Ireland
PARIS (AP) — France is counting on teen center Gael Fickou to provide some creative spark against an Ireland team hoping to send off his counterpart Brian O’Driscoll as a Six Nations champion on Saturday.
The underwhelming French host the underachieving Irish in what shapes as the title decider at Stade de France.
The other contender, England, plays Italy in Rome earlier, leaving France and Ireland in the finale knowing what they have to do to take the title. Points differential could be important, and that favours Ireland.
History counts against the Irish in Paris, where they haven’t won since 2000, but they have an extra incentive this time.
O’Driscoll makes his 141st and last test appearance before retiring a brilliant 15-year career on the same ground where he scored a hat trick of tries in 2000 to give Ireland its first victory in Paris since 1972. It hasn’t won in Paris since.
“We don’t want to make it O’Driscoll’s party,” France coach Philippe Saint-Andre said.
But France has tended to poop its own party in the past year. After wins over England and Italy, France was smashed by Wales and barely cohesive in a win against Scotland last weekend.
“We will try and put in a great performance, and if we manage to please our fans it will be a bonus,” Saint-Andre said. “We’re preparing ourselves for a match of the highest level after drawing the last two seasons against them.”
The 19-year-old Fickou scored the match-winning try in the 26-24 opening win over England and finally receives his first start. His midfield contest with the 35-year-old O’Driscoll intrigues, as the world’s most capped player faces one looking to become a future great.
“The speed and youth of Gael Fickou gives us some interesting options. He’s in form and we need to see him express his talent,” Saint-Andre said. “It will be a real challenge for him and Mathieu Bastareaud against a good pair of centers. But we believe in him. He’s settled in our squad now and is feeling good both mentally and physically.”
Fickou said, “I’m obviously very happy, and I’m immensely proud to start the match given the context — against Ireland in the last game of the tournament, at Stade de France and against O’Driscoll. He’s an icon in Ireland and has done so much for his country.”
Fickou was in for the ineffective Maxime Mermoz, and flyhalf Remi Tales has replaced Jules Plisson, whose defence let him down.
Tales and scrumhalf Maxime Machenaud are the 12th halves pairing Saint-Andre has selected since taking over from Marc Lievremont after the 2011 World Cup.
Hooker Dimitri Szarzewski and loose forward Louis Picamoles return up front, where France has struggled in the set-pieces.
“The problem rests with us, we have to concentrate on our throws and our jumps,” No. 8 Damien Chouly said. “We must be more demanding of ourselves and each other.”
France: Brice Dulin, Yoann Huget, Mathieu Bastareaud, Gael Fickou, Maxime Medard, Remi Tales, Maxime Machenaud; Damien Chouly, Alexandre Lapandry, Louis Picamoles, Yoann Maestri, Pascal Pape (captain), Nicolas Mas, Dimitri Szarzewski, Thomas Domingo. Reserves: Guilhem Guirado, Vincent Debaty, Rabah Slimani, Alexandre Flanquart, Sebastien Vahaamahina, Wenceslas Lauret, Jean-Marc Doussain, Maxime Mermoz.
Ireland: Rob Kearney, Andrew Trimble, Brian O’Driscoll, Gordon D’Arcy, Dave Kearney, Jonathan Sexton, Conor Murray; Jamie Heaslip, Chris Henry, Peter O’Mahony, Paul O’Connell (captain), Devin Toner, Mike Ross, Rory Best, Cian Healy. Reserves: Sean Cronin, Jack McGrath, Martin Moore, Iain Henderson, Jordi Murphy, Eoin Reddan, Ian Madigan, Fergus McFadden.