The only vague surprise about France coach Jacques Brunel’s decision to keep faith with the 23 players who beat Scotland for Sunday’s Six Nations match against Ireland was that it was the first time he has named the same side for consecutive matches since taking the job in January 2018.
Indeed, it was the first time the same French side has been named for two matches in a row since November 2017 — and, Six Nations’ Rugby statistician Stu Farmer revealed on Twitter, the first time they’ve managed it in the Six Nations since rounds four and five in 2003.
It also means Les Bleus head to the Aviva on Sunday without their most dangerous attacking threat, Teddy Thomas, despite the fact he’s fit and scoring tries. Maybe it’s because he’s the textbook definition of mercurial. When he’s good, he’s very, very good. Unfortunately, he’s not always good. Not by a long way. Brunel has good reason for not picking him for this tournament to date. Injury had kept Thomas out of the initial Six Nations squad.
But the fit-again 25-year-old is doing his best to get noticed. He looked sharp on his return to Top 14 action a fortnight ago, playing 80 minutes in Racing 92’s defeat at Castres. Then, on Saturday, he scored a hat-trick in another full outing as the ciel-et-bleu ruined La Rochelle.
Assuming France aren’t humiliated on Sunday, however, it’s unlikely that Brunel will want to tinker much heading into the final round of the tournament against Italy in Rome.
But, if Thomas remains fit he should be almost impossible to ignore for the World Cup in Japan. At least, that’s what many may think.
“He’s worked hard to come back from his injury,” Racing coach Laurent Travers said after the Top 14 win. “He has many things that others do not. It is up to him to work over the long term. He must do even more and, above all, not relax.”
Thomas can be the best of players. He has 10 tries in 16 internationals, announcing his arrival in November 2014 with a hat-trick against Fiji. Only Philippe Bernat-Salle has a better tries-to-Test ratio for France. No current international team-mate comes close. He has defender-terrifying pace to burn, and a step to rival Cheslin Kolbe. With ball in hand, Thomas is the closest thing to Serge Blanco that France have had since the fullback retired in 1991.
Repeated injuries and dips in performance mean those 16 caps have taken five years to accumulate. There was a three-year gap between try number four, scored on his second international outing in November 2014, and try number five, in November 2017. He can be invisible in defence. Even in attack, he can be a liability.
Those three tries in that last outing for Racing 92, his second comeback game after picking up an injury scoring a try in a previous injury-comeback game in January do not tell the whole story. Thomas was guilty of glaring defensive errors that led to both La Rochelle touchdowns. Those mistakes, at least, didn’t matter — Racing still won 50-14.
His defensive frailties, his nonchalance and ability to go missing, are well known. As Travers said: “On the defensive side, there is a lot we need to be able to improve.”
The question is, whether France is prepared to forgive any more.
When France played South Africa in November 2018, a howling Thomas mistake did matter. He had done the hard work, finding a route through the Springboks’ defence, breaking deep into opposition territory. But, with just one defender to beat and two support runners inside him with a clear run to the line screaming for the ball, he tried to sidestep when others would have passed and was tackled. The chance died.
The rest is yet another wince-inducing tale of modern French rugby history. With less than a minute to play, France were ahead and camped on South Africa’s line. They lost.
After that match, Brunel said of Thomas’s decision-making: “This is one of the areas where he needs to make progress. He is able to break defences and score tries but he would have been better to look around because there were at least two close supporters and the conditions were right to finish the job.”
Then, there’s the Champions Cup final against Leinster in May 2018, it was his late blind-alley mistake after Leone Nakarawa had stolen what looked like a key lineout that, eventually, gave Isa Nacewa the penalty shot at goal that won the title for the Dublin side.
That hat-trick on his debut in 2014 suggested a long run for the Racing flyer. Injuries, yes, have played their part in his stop-start international career - but so have lacklustre performances.
Four of his 16 outings have ended with a personal player rating of just three out of 10 from French sports newspaper L’Equipe. His average score in the paper over his 16-match career is just 4.9.
Brunel has picked Thomas eight times for France. It’s the player’s best international run — yet, right now, Thomas seems as far away as he has ever been from an international call-up. And time is running out for Japan.