Jacques Brunel turned 65 on Monday, but the France head coach is unlikely to have received a more generous gift than the ‘Coach of the Year’ award given to him earlier this month at the Rencontres Toussuire Sports.
France after all won only three Tests last year (including against England in the Six Nations), rounding off a fairly painful 2018 with a first-ever defeat to Fiji. Turns out the national side’s malaise cannot solely be pinned on ousted former coach Guy Noves.
Brunel’s 31-man squad includes five uncapped players all with their own interesting subplots: Paul Willemse, Romain Ntamack, Thomas Ramos, Dorian Aldegheri and Gregory Alldritt.
There are key injuries in the tight five – Camille Chat, Rabah Slimani, Cedate Gomes Sa and Yoann Maestri – while wing Teddy Thomas is also unavailable.
Of the new faces, Willemse, Pretoria-born and weighing in at 6ft 7in and 135kg, was destined to play for the Bulls and then surely South Africa.
Hopes of French success in 2019 off the back of that Fijian nightmare are understandably low, but there was at least a ripple of excitement last week with Brunel’s squad announcement for the upcoming Six Nations
Instead, after four and a half years in France first with Grenoble and then primarily at Montpellier, the hulking lock will play for his adopted country.
Ntamack, son of former international Emile, and Ramos are two of the young stars in a thrilling Toulouse team dealt a chastening lesson in Dublin last weekend in defeat to Leinster, even without Johnny Sexton, Rob Kearney and more
Willemse now has a French passport, a demand made by Bernard Laporte upon taking over as head of the FFR of all foreign-born players with ambitions to play for France.
Given that Test rugby marks an even greater leap from taking on the European champions at the RDS, and while both Ntamack and Ramos are thrilling talents with a lot of the top flight rugby under their belts at only 19 and 21 respectively, how they respond to that setback in Dublin will be interesting. Aldegheri, the tighthead prop called up to cover for Gomes Sa, found the going noticeably tough against Cian Healy.
The most intriguing call-up of the quintet might be Alldritt, who in a short space of time has progressed from playing in Federale 1 with Auch, France’s third division, to the France squad at only 21 years old.
Unlike most top international sides there is no French equivalent of a James Ryan or Maro Itoje or Brodie Retallick to build around. Maestri, Paul Gabrillagues and Sebastian Vahaamahina have failed to become the next Fabien Pelous or even Pascal Pape. The hope is that at least one of the highly-rated Felix Lambey, or Arthur Iturria and perhaps Alldritt can fill that void.
One young pillar firmly in place however is Antoine Dupont, the Toulouse scrum-half, whose performances in the Champions Cup will have persuaded Brunel to cement him as the long-term starter.
Dupont’s partnership with Camille Lopez has to be allowed to gel over the next five Six Nations matches and during the Rugby World Cup warm-ups.
Demba Bamba showed in last year’s Under-20 World Championship that he is the future for France at tighthead, and has been selected for the Six Nations despite playing in the second division with Brive.
Key areas of selection – the back row and backline – however remain somewhat of a mystery. Gael Fickou for example, traditionally a centre, has been called up as a winger.
Mathieu Bastareaud will almost certainly start at outside centre but Brunel and his assistant backs coach Jean-Baptiste Elissalde must pick one of Wesley Fofana, Geoffrey Douack to partner him in midfield. Ramos at full-back equally needs time to bed in.
Brunel’s objective was always to patch France up enough for them to be at least competitive, but he still has a whole catalogue of questions to address nine months out from the tournament in Japan.
After the debacle against Fiji he desperately needs some of his players to emerge as reliable leaders and performers, combined with a little luck, for France to be competitive in the Six Nations.