France’s unpredictability these days tends to be in their team selection rather than their play, but after being named in a side to face Argentina on Saturday that surprised even the French media, the wing Yoann Huget believes Les Bleus are equipped not just to beat England to the top position in the group but reach the final.
France’s bench contains three players who did not feature in any of the pre-World Cup warm-ups while the centre Virimi Vakatawa made a single appearance as a replacement against Italy. Their last two World Cup campaigns ere notable for left-field selections at outside-half and the 20-year old Romain Ntamack, who plays in the centre for Toulouse, has been chosen there ahead of the experienced Camille Lopez even though heavy rain is forecast in Tokyo this weekend.
“Given the way we have prepared, I think we are at the same level as England, New Zealand and South Africa,” said Huget. “We were lagging behind England when we played them in the Six Nations this year [and lost 44-8] but the way we have pulled together since then makes makes me really positive about how far we will go in this competition.
“We play England last so we have three matches to think about before then. Argentina are big opponents to start with. It is an important game and one we will be giving everything to win. It would give us the chance to really show our potential in the next two games and be ready for England.
“When you look at our backline, we have confident and exceptional players. I know there will be talk of Romain [Ntamack] starting at outside-half, but I am at Toulouse with him and know how good he is. Forget about his age, he is very mature, quick to think on his feet. We have the right balance between youth and experience and we have a little bit of craziness.”
Huget is one of seven players in the team who started at Twickenham. Four of them are occupying different positions, reflecting the topsy-turvy nature of their selection. France’s head coach Jacques Brunel spent much of his media conference on Thursday explaining Ntamack’s inclusion and why he had included four players in his 23 who had not started one of their three warm-up matches.
“They have all done well in training,” he said. “We have been working hard on the collective factor in the last few months and we have the potential to do very well in this World Cup. We certainly believe in our chances in this pool.” Asked if he would change his team if the weather forecast proved to be right – France failed to do so in the 2003 semi-final against England and lost when a dry-weather team was washed away in the Sydney rain – he replied: “No. We would change our tactics.”
In contrast, Argentina have a settled feel. Most of their players are with the Jaguares, the country’s Super Rugby franchise, although they have opted for the Stade Français outside-half Nicolas Sanchez and the Saracens prop Juan Figallo who both featured in this year’s Rugby Championship.
France: 15 Maxime Medard, 14 Damian Penaud, 13 Gael Fickou, 12 Virimi Vakatawa, 11 Yoann Huget, 10 Romain Ntamack, 9 Antoine Dupont, 8 Gregory Alldritt, 7 Charles Ollivon, 6 Wenceslas Lauret, 5 Sebastien Vahaamahina, 4 Arthur Iturria, 3 Rabah Slimani, 2 Guilhem Guirado (captain), 1 Jefferson Poirot. Substitutes: 16 Camille Chat, 17 Cyril Baille, 18 Demba Bamba, 19 Bernard le Roux, 20 Louis Picamoles, 21 Maxime Machenaud, 22 Camille Lopez, 23 Thomas Ramos.
Argentina: 15 Emiliano Boffelli, 14 Matias Moroni, 13 Matias Orlando, 12 Jeronimo de la Fuente, 11 Ramiro Moyano, 10 Nicolas Sanchez, 9 Tomas Cubelli, 8 Javier Ortega Desio, 7 Marcos Kremer, 6 Pablo Matera (captain), 5 Tomas Lavanini, 4 Guido Petti, 3 Juan Figallo, 2 Agustin Creevy, 1 Nahuel Tetaz Chaparro. Substitutes: 16 Julian Montoya, 17 Mayco Vivas, 18 Santiago Medrano, 19 Matias Alemanno, 20 Tomas Lezana, 21 Felipe Ezcurra, 22 Benjamin Urdapilleta, 23 Santiago Carreras.