London’s Indian summer came to an abrupt end yesterday, but the slate skies and soft rain did little to dampen the sense of conviviality that permeated the mood around the French camp ahead of their second outing in Ireland’s Pool D tomorrow night.
With Italy beaten, comfortably if not wholly convincingly, and Romania next up at the Olympic Stadium, there was a sense that Phillipe Saint-Andre and his crew were easing themselves gently into the first week or so of this tournament.
Players on press duties laughed and giggled like schoolboys on a day trip to the zoo.
The French coach appeared just as relaxed, cracked a few jokes that went down well and spoke about the sensation he felt when hearing ‘La Marseillaise’ delivered with such gusto in London over the weekend — and not just against Italy on Saturday night.
On Friday there were clear bars of the French national anthem to be heard amidst the din of England and Fiji supporters and the same chords were more apparent on Sunday at Wembley, especially so when Argentina took the game to New Zealand.
It clearly isn’t just the Irish who are here in numbers.
The one clunking, dud note was sounded towards the end of Saint-Andre’s near half-hour press conference at the Selsdon Park Hotel nestled in a leafy South Croydon neighbourhood that made one wonder what all the fuss about the quality of their team base was last week.
Saint-Andre had mentioned ‘le combat’ on more than one occasion when referencing his side’s opening display against Italy before one reporter put it to him that maybe rugby was about speed and skill as much as power and physicality.
“It shows that you have played rugby,” said an obviously-miffed Saint-Andre with irony, having moments earlier pointed out that this was not tennis or ping pong. “Me, I played rugby and there is combat. You have your ideas and I have mine.”
It was for his ideas on the team to face Romania that the media congregated in the Edward Suite, but it was hardly a shock when he named a XV that showed 13 changes.
Only Louis Picamoles, his rampaging number eight, and Noa Nakaitaci, the Clermont Auvergne wing who spilled a simple try chance in the first-half against Italy, double up with the coach admitting that such a turnover had been pre-ordained when the fixtures passed his desk.
Picamoles came off with 15 minutes to go at the weekend and was spirited away from the stadium immediately to get as much sleep as possible, while Nakataci has been retained to bank what Saint-Andre said was some needed extra game time. Yoann Huget’s demise had a say in that, too.
The Toulouse wing’s World Cup ended abruptly with a cruciate ligament tear against the Azzurri and his place in the squad has been taken by Castres’ Remi Grosso, an uncapped 26-year old who has suffered his own injury misfortunes with his knees and a shoulder in recent years.
Grosso has been parachuted in ahead of the more celebrated pair of Remi Lamerat and Maxime Medard. Quick and with good defensive skills, he scored ten tries in 16 games for Castres last season and starred for France in Sevens over the summer as well.
A World Cup/Olympic Games double would be quite the feat and the talk is that Grosso may yet leapfrog Bordeaux-Begles’ Sofiane Guitoune for a place along the touchline come the bigger games against Ireland and beyond.
Grosso will play no part tomorrow given the long-term nature of Saint-Andre’s deliberations for the first two games, but this remains a relatively inexperienced 23 he is sending out in World Cup terms. For 16 of them, this is their first.
Bernard Le Roux, the Racing Metro back row, starts at lock, Wesley Fofana returns from the light injury that sidelined him until now while Remi Tales and Morgan Parra will hope to click in the pivot positions and unleash a back line loaded with class.
B Dulin (Racing Metro); S Guitoune (Clermont Auvergne), G Fickou (Toulouse), W Fofana (Clermont Auvergne), N Nakaitaci (Clermont Auvergne); R Tales (Racing Metro), M Parra (Clermont Auvergne); V Debaty (Clermont Auvergne), D Szarewski (Racing Metro), U Atonio (La Rochelle); B Le Roux (Racing Metro), A Flanquart (Stade Francais); Y Nyanga (Racing Metro), F Ouedraogo (Montpellier), L Picamoles (Toulouse).
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