Pragmatic Philippe faces a rebuilding job

There might well be a new broom brushing away the cobwebs of the Marc Lièvremont era but looking at Philippe Saint-André’s first XV as France coach, it’s not immediately clear if all that much has changed.

The former France winger has kept faith with the vast majority of the players who went from zero to hero during the World Cup, adding only two new debutants to today’s match day 22 against Italy. With so little happening off the pitch, all of France has been waiting for this weekend in order to get a glimpse of what this new Saint-André era means for Les Bleus.

So will it be the glorious French side that pushed the All Blacks to the brink in the World Cup final 12 weeks ago or will it be the miserable excuse for a national team that lost to Tonga three weeks previous? The World Cup gave us France in a nutshell; the clutch of handwringing performances swimming in a sea of player disharmony followed by redemption and confirmation that when they want to, France can be the best team in the world. Therein lays the task for Saint-André over the next few years. He has been charged with putting consistency into an already battle hardened and talented squad. After eight years of Mad Bernie Laporte and four more of Madder Marc, France fancy a bit of Pragmatic Philippe.

“We’ve had to be very pragmatic and very clever because we haven’t had much time together,” says Saint-André, rueing the Top 14 scheduling that saw his players back at their clubs last weekend. “We did our bonding in a few hours though. I found guys that were very focused and very happy to see each other after the World Cup.”

Despite the new cap for Clermont’s exciting young centre Wesley Rofan however, France look an ageing side and whether he likes it or not, Saint-André will be faced with replacing the majority of the side before the next World Cup. Today’s team has an average age of nearly 30 (compared to Ireland’s 27) and boasts a cumulative total of 602 caps, with Louis Pica moles the only forward under the age of 30.

He insists he’s not looking beyond this weekend’s game, but with England and Ireland at home this year, there’s got to be a little part of him that fancy’s a Championship win this year.

“My only priority is to win the first game against Italy,” he proclaims. “The Six Nations is going to be a really open competition.’’

Saint-André has told his team to put the World Cup behind them and look ahead but it seems its spectre will continue to overshadow this generation of French players. The trick for the former Sale, Gloucester and Toulon coach is to see if he can use it positively.

“To be honest, when you lose in the final of a World Cup against New Zealand by one point it shows there was a fantastic spirit in the team. It was tough in the pool stages but when you get to the quarter-final and semi-final stages, it’s win or die and the French guys showed that they were strong mentally and showed a lot of character and commitment.’’

FRANCE: M Medard (Toulouse); V Clerc (Toulouse), A Rougerie (Clermont Auvergne), W Fofana (Clermont Auvergne), J Malzieu (Clermont Auvergne); F Trinh-Duc (Montpellier), D Yachvili (Biarritz); V Debaty (Clermont Auvergne), W Servat (Toulouse), N Mas (Perpignan), P Pape (Stade Francais), L Nallet (Racing Metro), T Dusautoir (Toulouse, capt), J Bonnaire (Clermont Auvergne), L Picamoles (Toulouse).

Replacements: D Szarzewski (Stade Francais), J-B Poux (Toulouse), Y Maestri (Toulouse), I Harinordoquy (Biarritz), M Parra (Clermont Auvergne), L Beauxis (Toulouse), M Mermoz (Perpignan).

ITALY: A Masi (Aironi); G Venditti (Aironi), T Benvenuti (Treviso), A Sgarbi (Treviso), L McLean (Treviso); K Burton (Treviso), E Gori (Treviso); A Lo Cicero (Racing Metro), L Ghiraldini (Treviso), M Castrogiovanni (Leicester), C Van Zyl (Treviso), Q Geldenhuys (Aironi), A Zanni (Treviso), R Barbieri (Treviso), S Parisse (Stade Francais, capt).

Replacements: T D’Apice (Aironi), L Cittadini (Treviso), M Bortolami (Aironi), S Favaro (Aironi), F Semenzato (Treviso), T Botes (Treviso), G Canale (Clermont Auvergne).

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