Winger’s absence has left Les Bleus with a selection issue … in midfield
The injury that has forced winger Gabin Villiere to miss France’s Six Nations match against Scotland has left head coach Fabien Galthie facing a selection conundrum – who does he call to stand in for his star turn of the tournament so far?
The remarkable Villiere has been one of the star Bleus of the opening two weeks of the tournament – his boys’ own back story is now so famous it’s up there with lock Thibault Flament’s dabbling with the 10 shirt in Loughbrough, or centre Yoram Moefana’s rapid rise and rise.
It’s easy to argue that the Toulon winger was better against Ireland than he was against Italy, his ridiculous work rate and phenomenal defensive effort in the 52 minutes he was on the pitch outweighing even the hat-trick he scored in the opener against Azzurri.
Followers of France already knew of his bravery and high-pain threshold – for a man, at least. With France out of wing cover, Villiere played almost all of the second Test against Australia in July on a badly sprained ankle that later required surgery.
Now Galthie has to find a way to replace his die-hard winger, who has made the 11 shirt his own since his debut in November 2020, for the difficult trip to Edinburgh. And it looks, from media reports following Tuesday’s training session at Marcoussis as if he’s chosen a safety-first option.
He has winger-for-winger options in his 42-player extended squad. Toulouse’s Matthis Lebel won his first cap against Georgia in November, but was largely anonymous in a no-better-than adequate win for a France side that was clearly looking ahead to New Zealand.
And bogey-team Scotland – in the cauldron of Murrayfield, 18 months out from the World Cup when attack coach Laurent Labit has promised ‘less experimenting’ – is unlikely to be an opponent against which Galthie feels he can blood any of the uncapped trio of Racing 92’s Donovan Taofifenua, La Rochelle’s Jules Favre, or Toulon’s Aymeric Luc.
Which inevitably leads to speculation – backed up, apparently, by the game of bibs, that a midfield shift is far more likely.
Defence lynchpin Gael Fickou has gone there, done the wing-switch, before. He’s moved out wide four times under Galthie – including the two Six Nations’ defeats to Scotland – and can do a job there, but it seems unlikely that the staff will want to make more changes than necessary, and keeping their defence captain where he’s most effective makes the most sense.
A 12-13 Fickou-Virimi Vakatawa partnership – bringing the club and country midfield band back together – is a consideration, despite the latter’s perceived dip in form. But, that falls into the same trap as moving Fickou wide.
Meanwhile, Jonathan Danty’s recall – after Tani Vili was pulled from the squad following disciplinary issues at his club, Clermont – suggests that he has recovered from the injury that kept him out of the squad for the Ireland match.
The 21-year-old Moefana did plenty right and nothing wrong at inside centre in Danty’s absence against Ireland at Stade de France, after impressing off the bench against Italy.
He – like Fickou – is a better centre than wing. But he – like Fickou – can do a job out on wide. He’s done it more than once for Bordeaux, for all that his last start – on the other side of the pitch – was on the opening day of the Top 14 season, in September.
As prediction models go, what bibs a player is wearing four days before a match and two before the squad is announced is not entirely accurate. But Moefana switching to the wing, with Danty-Fickou as the centre partnership and Damian Penaud – another former centre whose switch was questioned at the time but who has proved his doubters very wrong – at the other side of the pitch would make sense as a stop-gap, safety-first, continuity rugby move.
Villiere is expected to be fit again for France’s trip to Cardiff on March 11. With a Six Nations still very much on the cards heading into this week’s Edinburgh encounter, and a shot at a Grand Slam still on, short-term safety first makes the most sense for Les Bleus.
As for elsewhere, the return of tighthead Mohamed Hoauas, following his court appearance over a series of 2014 break-ins in Montpellier, prompted speculation over whether he will make an instant return to the starting line-up. It seems unlikely, even though he has long been a favourite of Galthie’s. Uini Atonio has a tight grip on France’s number three shirt right now, and seems unwilling to let it go.
It’s more likely Hoauas’s return would be off the bench, if it happens against Scotland at all. Which leaves one final question: what bench split could France go for? A six-two would mean – probably – Maxime Lucu and Thomas Ramos would be the sole backs in the replacement contingent. A five-three opens up the possibility of a winger coming on late.
My name is James Harrington. I’m a freelance sports journalist based in France, writing mostly about French club and international rugby. If, after reading this, you feel the urge to commission me for match previews, reviews, features, interviews, live blogs, feel free to contact me
And, please read my weekly French rugby column in The Rugby Paper every Sunday. And I round-up all the weekend’s Top 14 action on the Irish Examiner website on Monday.