France international centre Gaël Fickou admits victory over a weakened Scotland has restored “a little confidence” in their under-fire squad, but Sunday’s clash with Ireland in Dublin will be a “step up” in class.
“It’s an important step,” he told Midi Olympique. “Lately, we haven’t been able to win. Getting back to winning ways, and in a pretty good manner, overall, was crucial. It’s been a long time since we played that well in front of a full stadium of fans.
“It allowed us to regain a little confidence. Obviously, [Ireland in Dublin] will be another step, perhaps an even more important one.”
He said, though, there was no pressure on the France squad ahead of the game: “We are all aware of the high standard Ireland set, but individually we have nothing to worry about. Everyone sees us getting beaten, but we have nothing to lose going into the game.”
He believes, however, that there was an important change in the French camp in the fortnight between the defeat to England at Twickenham and the win over Scotland in Paris. Following the England game, there had been claims of a player revolt, as both Morgan Parra and Camille Lopez publicly criticised the coaches and the set-up.
Fickou admitted there had been plenty of soul-searching in that period, but insisted much of the speculation swirling outside French rugby’s Marcoussis headquarters was off the mark, notably, unwelcome questions over the future of captain Guilhem Guirado. No one in the France camp considered anyone other than Guirado as the leader, he insisted.
“He is best suited to this role in our group. We need him. He gives strength and confidence to everyone. For me, this kind of criticism was not justified.”
He added: “There was a lot of discussion about what could be improved in the run-up to the World Cup. There were exchanges between players and with the staff, but also with FFR vice-president Serge Simon. That week was a turning point. Everything that was said was constructive.”
Hints of a new confidence were visible on the Stade de France pitch two weeks ago, as Les Bleus showed glimpses of their ‘French flair’, with the majority of those selected playing in their preferred positions.
France scored four tries to pick up a bonus point win against Scotland, but Fickou insisted that the performance was far from perfect. Imprecision cost them two tries, while Clermont’s centre-turned-winger Damian Penaud, too, had a try disallowed, and it was not until the 89th minute that replacement No 8 Gregory Alldritt crossed for the bonus-point score, having scored France’s third try in the 76th minute.
“Obviously, not everything was perfect,” said Fickou. “We must work on our discipline, for example, and our finishing must also improve. We have to learn how to kill games.”
The young Toulouse contingent in the squad — Antoine Dupont, Thomas Ramos, and Romain Ntamack — have garnered plenty of praise for their performance against Scotland and head coach Jacques Brunel this week called up their team-mate, scrum-half Sébastien Bézy, as cover for the injured Parra.
Fickou, who was a Toulouse player before he moved to Stade Francais after the Paris club paid a reported €750,000 to activate a release clause in his contract and secure his services a year early, said that it was unfair to heap all the praise at the players from one club.
“It’s a little reductive. Damian Penaud or Arthur Iturria also deserve recognition and yet they are not from Toulouse. Let’s use all the talented players, whether they are from Toulouse or Clermont-Ferrand.”
As well as Bézy, Brunel has recalled Racing 92 prop Cedate Gomes Sa as cover for Uini Atonio, who was injured after being released last week to play for La Rochelle. Brunel, however, is expected to stick with the same players who gave him his first win since November, though there is an injury concern over lock Paul Willemse. There was no Sunday evening call-up, either, for winger Teddy Thomas, despite the fact he scored a hat-trick in Racing’s 50-14 victory over the Rochelais.