Fabien Galthié has never been afraid to do things a little differently and after naming his squad for the 2020 Guinness Six Nations, there is a clear coherence in what he is trying to achieve.
By including 19 uncapped players in a 42-man squad, with just one player over 30 and an average of 24, Galthié has laid the platform for a new generation of French players to take control.
At 26 and with 11 caps to his name, Charles Ollivon is something of a gamble as skipper, but there is no question that he commands the respect of his peers, and as a back-rower, is more likely to last 80 minutes than some of the alternatives in the front row like Jefferson Poirot or Julien Marchand.
France have won the last two World Rugby Under-20 Championship titles, and that reservoir of talent makes the transition to a younger side easier for Galthié.
Demba Bamba and Romain Ntamack have both made the step up from those teams to the senior side. They will be joined by five of their contemporaries, prop Jean-Baptiste Gros, second row Killian Geraci, flanker Cameron Woki, fly-half Louis Carbonel and centre Arthur Vincent. With the exception of the dynamic Woki, the other four were all involved in both titles.
Those five have seemed destined to make it to the top level at some point, if not necessarily this early, but the squad also features a relatively diverse collection of new faces.
Galthié has clearly made the decision to spread his net wide. While the team that lines up against England in the Guinness Six Nations opener could feature no debutants in the starting line-up, there are uncapped players at every level who will get the chance to stake a claim for involvement.
🏆 Voici les 42 joueurs retenus pour préparer le Tournoi des #SixNations 2020 !
Les Bleus débutent leur préparation à Nice le 19 Janvier et vous donnent rendez-vous le dimanche 2 février au Stade de France contre l’Angleterre à 16h !#NeFaisonsXV #XVdeFrance pic.twitter.com/a8AJ4PjSh9
— France Rugby (@FranceRugby) January 8, 2020
Galthié and the rest of his staff have spent the past few months travelling around France speaking to prospective players. They have been trawling for talent and found a number of players who very few would have tipped for inclusion even six months ago.
Among them is full-back Anthony Bouthier, a revelation at Montpellier this season in his first campaign in the Top 14. The 27-year-old had previously plied his trade at Vannes – far from a rugby heartland – in Pro D2 and even Fédérale 1, the French third division.
Scrum-half Maxime Lucu and back three pair Lester Etien and Kylan Hamdaoui are others who have had to plug away in the second flight before getting their opportunity.
Tighthead prop Mohamed Haouas started out practising taekwondo before switching to rugby and playing for the French military side. As the local Montpellier paper, the Midi Libre, reported, he had also fallen into the wrong crowd before rugby saved him. His ascension to this level is quite remarkable.
It should perhaps come as no surprise that Galthié is looking far and wide in his search for international talent. The former France skipper and scrum-half spent most of his career at Colomiers but has never been afraid to travel.
During his playing days he spent time in South Africa playing in the Currie Cup. As a coach he was part of the Argentina set-up after his first coaching experience with Stade Français.
In between coaching jobs both he and manager Raphaël Ibanez have spent time in other environments, Galthié in England, Ibanez most recently in New Zealand.
Le choix du capitaine, l’arrivée de nouveaux joueurs et la mise en place du cadre de vie du #XVdeFrance, Fabien Galthié et Raphaël Ibanez sont revenus avec nous sur leurs premiers choix forts avant le Tournoi !
— France Rugby (@FranceRugby) January 9, 2020
Add in Shaun Edwards and it is certainly not an insular coaching team, and that is reflected in this selection.
NEED FOR SPEED
It is clear that the team will look to play at a high tempo. The three fly-halves, Ntamack, Carbonel and fit-again Matthieu Jalibert (the oldest at 21), are young and play an ambitious brand of rugby.
France may not have the powerful ball carriers in the backs other than Virimi Vakatawa, but they have the speed and support runners who so nearly carried them to a World Cup quarter-final win over Wales.
The back row is similarly dynamic. Ollivon and Grégory Alldritt have 11 caps apiece, with François Cros the next most experienced with two. It is a young, hungry group, and in players like Sekou Macalou and to a slightly lesser extent, Woki, made up of players with uncommon speed for the position.
Even in the front row, Bamba and Camille Chat are both big, powerful men, but perfectly suited to the modern game with their quick feet in the case of the former, and ability over the ball for the latter.
Making it all gel will not be easy and stands as arguably Galthié’s biggest challenge. The fact he has 42 players is a marked increase on previous coaches and is explained by his desire to have at least two full teams available for training at all times, when often a couple of players with niggles can hinder how the coaches can implement a game plan.
There will be eyebrows raised at the decision to go with such a young team, while the omission of experienced campaigners like Maxime Médard or Wenceslas Lauret is a bold move.
Clermont pair Arthur Iturria and Alivereti Raka also missed out, although Galthié was quick to clarify that they are very close so they will likely have their chance again.
Settling on his first-choice team will be made harder by the sheer number of players in the squad, although Galthié has said he already has an idea of what the matchday 23 to face England will look like.
The half-back pairing in that team could be the most instructive call of the lot. It is no secret that France have often chopped and changed their playmakers over recent seasons. In Antoine Dupont and Ntamack they appeared to have settled on a young pairing in Japan, but Jalibert and Carbonel could yet break that up.
Exactly what this France team will look like, it is hard to say. What is sure is that Galthié knows what he is wants to do, and he has selected a squad that has the potential to achieve it.