France makes 3 changes to face Ireland in Six Nations

PARIS (AP) France coach Guy Noves has made three changes for the Six Nations match at Ireland on Saturday, one he considers ”crucial” in the team’s development after narrow losses against rugby’s leading nations.

France has improved under Noves and competed well against New Zealand and Australia in the November test series, only to lose narrowly against England in their Six Nations opener three weeks ago.

”We competed for 70 minutes against England. This match is crucial in a way because we need big performances against the best teams,” Noves said. ”Ireland, without question is among them.”

Ireland ended New Zealand’s 18-game winning run when it beat the All Blacks 40-29 in November.

On Saturday, Yoann Huget will start at right wing instead of Virimi Vakatawa, who has a thigh problem, with Noa Nakaitaci switching over to the left wing to accommodate Huget.

”Yoann is coming back to form. He’s full of energy and his commitment to his teammates has been exceptional,” Noves said. ”That’s what we expect in the France team, that players put themselves at the service of the team.”

The other two changes are in the forwards. South African-born Bernard Le Roux will come in at flanker for the injured Loann Goujon, and Rabah Slimani – France’s try scorer against England – will replace prop Uini Atonio, who is out of form and has been benched.

Noves said France needs a ”powerful player” like Le Roux, who is also very mobile, against the strong Irish pack.

However, Noves made a surprising decision not to pick a flyhalf among his reserves, and said that scrumhalf Baptiste Serin could switch to flyhalf if he brings on another scrumhalf during the match at the Aviva Stadium in Dublin.

In the first two matches, France lost at England 19-16 and beat Scotland 22-16 at home, while Ireland lost at Scotland 27-22 and routed Italy 63-10 in Rome.

Noves underlined the attacking threat of an Ireland team that scored nine tries against the Italians, but he also said the Irish ”momentarily fell asleep” when losing to Scotland, leaving it too late despite a strong comeback after trailing 21-8 at halftime.

Last year, France scraped past Ireland 10-9 at home in a dour contest – one of France’s two wins in the tournament – and the previous year lost 18-11 in Dublin.

France: Scott Spedding, Yoann Huget, Remi Lamerat, Gael Fickou, Noa Nakaitaci, Camille Lopez, Baptiste Serin; Louis Picamoles, Kevin Gourdon, Bernard Le Roux, Yoann Maestri, Sebastien Vahaamahina, Rabah Slimani, Guilhem Guirado (captain), Cyril Baille. Reserves: Christopher Tolofua, Uini Atonio, Eddy Ben Arous, Julien Le Devedec, Charles Ollivon, Maxime Machenaud, Henry Chavancy, Djibril Camara.