PARIS (AP) Jacques Brunel was appointed in December as France coach to end the rot.
For his first team selection, he’s made one gutsy pick.
He’s given a starting debut to 19-year-old flyhalf Matthieu Jalibert against Ireland in the Six Nations opening round on Saturday.
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Together with eight other changes from France’s last match – a fortunate draw with Japan in Paris in November – they are tasked with repairing a fragile side on a six-match winless streak and showing it still belongs among Europe’s best.
It has been some fall from grace for a French side which lost by only one point to New Zealand in the 2011 Rugby World Cup final, the year after clinching a Six Nations Grand Slam.
There have been no Six Nations titles since and the Tricolors are in a permanent state of slumber, with coaches coming and going and not much changing. Guy Noves made way for Brunel.
First assignments don’t come much tougher: The Irish have a rabid back row and a backline far more inventive than France’s.
”We know we’re not favorites, they’re probably more confident than us,” Brunel says. ”But we also know we have untapped strength.”
He previously coached Jalibert at Bordeaux-Begles.
”He’ll have to be ready, because the Irish are going to take care of him a bit,” Brunel says. ”The Irish must have looked at (video) tapes and thought `Who’s this guy?”’
Actually, the Irish know enough.
”He plays a good game, he’s very exciting, and tries anything from anywhere, so we’ve got to watch him closely,” Ireland No. 8 CJ Stander says of Jalibert.
”He can bring anything, you don’t know what he’s going to bring, so you’ve got to get in his face and just try to shut him down.”
Jalibert will have support from scrumhalf Maxime Machenaud, whose 32nd test appearance will come with goalkicking duty.
”Jalibert has settled in well, he’s got his bearings and there is no reason not to start him,” Brunel says. ”Everyone’s taking an interest in him, he’s mature and he can handle it.”
He could handle the occasion at Stade de France but can France handle Ireland? Recent encounters suggest another gritty one. France lost in Ireland 19-9 last year, won an attritional match 10-9 at home the year before, and lost in Ireland 18-11 in 2015. They drew in 2012 and 2013.
France and Ireland finished third and second last year on points difference.
Brunel says: ”We’ll have to be tough when facing the pressure they put us under and strong in defense because their backs are very enterprising.”
To that end, he’s picked Geoffrey Palis at fullback, Arthur Iturria to lock his second test, and moved Kevin Gourdon from flanker to No. 8 for the first time at international level.
France: Geoffrey Palis, Teddy Thomas, Remi Lamerat, Henry Chavancy, Virimi Vakatawa, Matthieu Jalibert, Maxime Machenaud; Kevin Gourdon, Yacouba Camara, Wenceslas Lauret, Sebastien Vahaamahina, Arthur Iturria, Rabah Slimani, Guilhem Guirado (captain), Jefferson Poirot. Reserves: Adrien Pelissie, Dany Priso, Cedate Gomes Sa, Paul Gabrillagues, Marco Tauleigne, Antoine Dupont, Anthony Belleau, Benjamin Fall.
Ireland: Rob Kearney, Keith Earls, Robbie Henshaw, Bundee Aki, Jacob Stockdale, Jonathan Sexton, Conor Murray; CJ Stander, Josh van der Flier, Peter O’Mahony, James Ryan, Iain Henderson, Tadhg Furlong, Rory Best (captain), Cian Healy. Reserves: Sean Cronin, Jack McGrath, John Ryan, Devin Toner, Dan Leavy, Luke McGrath, Joey Carbery, Fergus McFadden.