Why France’s great eight Gregory Alldritt is the real deal

It looked for all the world that La Rochelle's bulldozing eight would be unavailable for the trip to Rome when - four days before Fabien Galthie's selected players met up  - an knee injury sidelined him
Why France’s great eight Gregory Alldritt is the real deal

France's number 8 Gregory Alldritt.

He may have joked at Thursday's squad unveiling that settling on a menu had been the toughest recent decision he and his coaches had to make at France's Six Nations training camp in Nice - but Fabien Galthie was, no doubt, quietly relieved he could select one particular player for today's Six Nations opener against Italy.

Gregory Alldritt has rocketed up the list of must-have players in the France squad in the two years since he won the first of his 18 caps two years ago. He's probably the first name on any list drawn up by France staff as they begin selection discussions, ahead even of Antoine Dupont, Romain Ntamack or Virimi Vakatawa.

It looked for all the world that La Rochelle's bulldozing eight would be unavailable for the trip to Rome when - four days before Fabien Galthie's selected players headed to the sun and coronavirus-enforced solitude in southeast France - it was suddenly announced he had pulled out and Cameron Woki had been called up as a replacement.

It wasn't a like-for-like swap. Far from it. For all his qualities, and there are many, Woki isn't an eight by training or inclination. He'd never pretend to be.

It had been made clear that only players who went to Nice would go to Rome when Toulouse full-back Thomas Ramos had earlier withdrawn from the camp with injury. And it seemed Alldritt - who won three man-of-the-match awards in last year's Six Nations and shortlisted for player of the tournament, only to be denied, to the eyebrow-raising surprise of French rugby watchers, by Dupont - wasn't going to Nice.

A press release from La Rochelle tried - and failed - to clarify the situation. Alldritt, 23, needed treatment on a troublesome knee injury that would, all being well, take a few days to sort. It was a decision made in conjunction with the national side's selectors, the statement said, and he may be available for the Italy game.

He played for La Rochelle the following evening, scoring twice, smashing holes in the defence for fun, stopping opposition runners in their tracks, stealing ball and linking with backs, as they demolished Agen 40-3 - apparently just to show French fans what they may be missing.

The concern among French fans and rugby cogniscenti was palpable. Cover at eight, if you look hard enough, is the weak-point of Galthie's nu-France. There's more than one reason Galthie bent his own training camp selection requirement to give Alldritt a chance to recover.

When full-back Ramos pulled out, Les Bleus already had plug-and-play duo Anthony Bouthier and Brice Dulin to turn to before they called up Vincent Rattez, a winger who can cover 15.

When Ntamack suffered a broken jaw, there was no question about the fly-half bone fides of Matthieu Jalibert or Louis Carbonel. Even Dupont has easily recognisable back-up in Baptiste Serin and Baptiste Couilloud - they have won games comfortably with both those back-up nines in situ. And no Vakatawa? A dip in attacking strength, for sure, but youngsters Arthur Vincent or Pierre-Louis Barassi are the future of France's midfield, anyway.

Options are not so obvious for the rugby spine position that Alldritt has made his own since he scored twice as a final 10-minute replacement for the then-indispensable Louis Picamoles against Scotland in 2019.

France boasts backrows by the bucketload, but precious few out-and-out eights - and none at Alldritt's sky-high and rocketing level. A player who does, week-in, week-out what he did against Agen, whose importance to France with or without the ball is unrivalled.

The most promising cover prospect is probably Toulouse's Selevasio Tolofua. The same age as the player he is seeking to overtake in the France starting line-up, Tolofua was the only other central backrow specialist called up to the training squad in Nice.

He had a promising debut against England in the Autumn Nations Cup final - but there is no suggestion Alldritt had a serious fight on his hands for the starting slot.

After Tolofua, France are scrabbling among their not-inconsiderable flanker stocks to create an eight. Tolofua's future team-mate and possible positional rival Anthony Jelonch did a job at eight against Italy in November - but really came into his own with a powerhouse performance at seven, France captain Charles Ollivon's regular position, against England in December's final. He's much more assured on either side of the backrow than in the middle of it, where he had played just a handful of times for his current club, Castres. His versatility has got him a place on the bench against Italy.

Another option for consideration was captain Ollivon, who did at least start his career at eight, before finding a more natural role as a galloping flanker.

Given the blurring of roles outside certain positions - notably the front row - it is entirely possible to manufacture a serviceable eight, if necessary. But the real deal remains a better option. And Alldritt is the real deal.

ITALY: J Trulla; L Sperandio, M Zanon, J Brex, M Ioane; P Garbisi, S Varney; C Traore, L Bigi, M Riccioni, M Lazzaroni, D Sisi, S Negri, J Meyer, M Lamaro.

Replacements: G Lucchesi, D Fischetti, G Zilocchi, N Cannone, F Ruzza, M Mbanda, G Palazzani, C Canna.

FRANCE: B Dulin, T Thomas, A Vincent, G Fickou, G Villiere, M Jalibert; A Dupont, C Baille; J Marchand, M Haouas, B Le Roux, P Willemse, D Cretin, C Ollivon, G Alldritt.

Replacements: P Bourgarit, J-Baptiste Gros, D Aldeghiri, R Taofifenua, A Jeronch, B Serin, L Carbonel, D Penaud.

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