France resume their Pool D campaign at the Olympic Stadium against Romania tonight with Johnny Sexton declaring Philippe Saint-Andre’s side “the best they’ve looked in years”.
Head coach Saint-Andre has made 13 changes from the XV which beat Italy at Twickenham last Saturday but French strength in depth is such that four days on Les Bleus look just as formidable.
Despite the loss of wing Yoann Huget to a tournament-ending knee injury, France looked comfortable in seeing off the Italians four days ago and with Romania and then Canada up next they will be expected to build further momentum ahead of the pool finale with Sexton’s Ireland in Cardiff on October 11.
Their turnaround in form after successive Six Nations in the doldrums had been signposted by an excellent pre-tournament victory over England in Paris three weeks ago and, according the Irish fly-half, who left Racing Metro in June after two seasons in the Top 14, it is entirely predictable.
“I think they’ve looked the best they’ve looked in years,” Sexton told the Irish Examiner.
“That’s what happens with France at a World Cup, because they’ve had all these weeks together, preparing together.
“Whereas for the four years previously they would have been concentrating on Top 14 and getting no preparation time with the French team.
“It’s tough for them for the Six Nations and in November, they’ve one week together before the first game and they might get two or three rugby sessions in or maybe they might go over the top and fit in too many rugby sessions because they’re trying to catch up.
“So you always come up against the best French teams at the World Cup and they showed that four years ago when they seemed in turmoil at the start and ended up getting to the final and they probably even should have won it.” Saint-Andre selected his World Cup squad back in mid-August, most notably omitting Montpellier fly-half Francois Trinh-Duc and placing his faith at number 10 in Toulon veteran Freddie Michalak and Remi Tales, the man who left Castres for Racing this summer as Sexton departed and who will start against Romania in London tonight.
“We’ve seen the players we’ll be coming up against for a while and I’d like to think that gives us an advantage but at the same time you look at them and there’s some serious strength in depth and it’s hard to pick their first XV.
“That’s going to be the tough thing for us, trying to see who’s going to be playing for them and then trying to stop them.
“Tales wasn’t there when I was, he’s just come in at Racing but I’ve played against him when he was at Castres.
“Initially it was a shock that Trinh-Duc wasn’t there in the squad but he hasn’t been involved for the last few years and the decision was Saint-Andre’s but they still have high quality players, just look at the calibre of player they left out.
“I haven’t played against Michalak too many times for whatever reason. When I’ve played against Toulon, Jonny Wilkinson played at 10 in the first year and in the second season I think Matt Giteau might have played at 10 in both the games and (Juan Martin) Hernandez played another time.
“But you know the threats Michalak does bring. He’s been kicking very well for the last couple of seasons, especially for Toulon but also against England this summer when he was six from seven off the tee, so straight away you’ve got be thinking about your discipline and taking that threat away from him.”
Sexton is also aware that while the scheduling of games means Ireland can gather momentum and cohesion leading into their finale with France, the same positives apply to the French and that is a major red flag for the Irish number 10 given previous encounters.
“We’ve found out the hard way in other World Cups against France, in 2003 we got beaten off the park and in 2007 we got beaten off the park so we might be being talked up as favourites for the group but things can change over a few weeks.
“France are looking pretty good at the moment but, look, I’m sure it’s going to be a pretty even game and it will probably come down to a few key moments and hopefully we can make sure we’re on the right side of them.” Sexton agreed that playing in the French Top 14 for two seasons had given him a better inside track into playing the national team than he had imagined.
“It’s definitely given me a big insight into the French psyche.
“They’re a talented bunch and for me, playing with the guys that I’ve played with in Racing who are in the squad, like (Alex) Dumoulin and (Brice) Dulin in the backs, both unbelievable, physical athletes.
“Dulin is so fast and Alex is so strong, he’s got everything really to be a top class player.Then there’s (hooker Dmitri) Szarzewski and (back row) Bernard Le Roux, again, fantastic players and if at times they’ve struggled to put it all together due to that lack of preparation time, come the tournament, they’re definitely that much better, so we’re going to have to be right on top of our game to get a result against them.”
Indications from Ireland’s opening match last weekend suggest Sexton along with the rest of Joe Schmidt’s squad, is certainly moving in the right direction.
He hit the ground running as he turned in a try-scoring man of the match performance in the 50-7 rout of Canada at the Millennium Stadium. His kicking, both tactical and off the tee was impressive and though he saw room for improvement in that performance it looks as if the Leinster out-half is back in the groove and benefiting from his first true pre-season since the summer of 2012.
The Lions tour in 2013 and early starts to the French domestic seasons have curtailed his preparation times in the intervening summers but Sexton is delighted to have approached this tournament off a long run.
“When you lose those weeks the rest of your time off is just trying to get back to the condition you were in so I haven’t got back to improve on anything except for this summer, and it’s been great to get back.”
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