Which French will turn up?
By Donal Lenihan
With so much talent on their books it will be interesting to see the approach adopted by the two big French clubs, Clermont Auvergne and Toulouse, when they take on Heineken Cup holders Leinster and Rabo Direct champions Ospreys over the weekend. On the international front last month, new French coach Philippe Saint-Andre orchestrated a return to the traditional French game of counter-attacking and offloading with spectacular results against Australia, Argentina and Samoa. They scored some stunning tries.
With some of the best threequarters the tournament has to offer on show in Vincent Clerc, a rejuvenated Florian Fritz, Yann David and Maxime Medard with Toulouse and Clermont’s Sitiveni Sivivatu, Wesley Fofana, Aurelien Rougerie and Napolioni Nalaga, there must be pressure on coaches Guy Noves and Vern Cotter to maximise that talent and divert from the sterile approach adopted by both sides in domestic and European competition last season.
The early evidence is that Toulouse have changed their approach and are employing a more expansive game plan while Clermont have chopped and changed their team so much that no discernible pattern has emerged as yet. That said, be assured that if both manage to dominate up front — which they are capable of — they can unleash some firepower behind the scrum in an effort to demoralise their opposition before meeting again next weekend. When the mood gets them, both are capable of producing scintillating rugby but the question remains: do they have the desire to go for the jugular?
Energy or exhaustion?
With four of the starting English backline that contributed to the demolition of New Zealand last weekend, it will be interesting to see what mental state Owen Farrell, Brad Barritt, Alex Goode and Chris Ashton will be in when they return to Saracens colours against Munster in today’s crucial encounter at Thomond Park. After a month away on international duty they, along with England’s young reserve loose head prop Mako Vunipola, have only had two training runs to reacquaint themselves with their Saracens team-mates.
After an experience like Twickenham, one of two outcomes is possible. First there is every likelihood they could be physically and emotionally drained from their exertions against New Zealand and find it very difficult to raise their performance levels again so quickly.
On the other hand, it is possible their confidence levels are now at an all-time high and they will thrive in the unique atmosphere a game of this magnitude generates.
After stints in Agen and Bayonne over the last few seasons, Yoann Huget is back where his career started in 2005 with Toulouse. Still only 25, his undoubted talent is finally beginning to blossom under the tutelage of Noves. Back in his favoured full-back slot, Huget has been tearing defences apart and won a recall to the France squad last month. His counter-attacking ability is sensational and if the Ospreys kick badly in Toulouse today, Huget will cut them open.
He will be joined in the second half off the bench by the latest French sensation, Gael Fickou (18). Blessed with pace, balance and power, Fickou represents the future of French back play and is being groomed for greatness by Noves. If the space opens up in the second half watch him glide through the gaps.
Last but not least Munster’s Felix Jones, now fully recovered from a horrific run of injuries, is showing the type of form that had him on the cusp of a place in Ireland’s World Cup squad last year before another heart-breaking injury cost him his place on the plane. Forget the freak try he conceded against Scarlets in the monsoon in Cork recently but focus on his broken field running which tore Glasgow apart last week. With Simon Zebo also looking comfortable in the No 15 jersey, Jones will be keen to showcase his talents today.
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