What a difference a year makes. Of the back-line that started France’s opening game of the 2018 Championship against Ireland, not a single one makes the 31-man training squad ahead of the 2019 Guinness Six Nations announced by Jacques Brunel on Wednesday.
Some of those omissions are injury-enforced – winger Teddy Thomas, fly-half Matthieu Jalibert and only-recently returned scrum-half Maxime Machenaud will likely all be key cogs in the Brunel machine moving forward – but there is undoubtedly a freshness to Les Bleus’ latest squad.
Five uncapped players have been given the nod by Brunel as he looks to build on last year’s fourth-place finish – Romain Ntamack, Thomas Ramos, Dorian Aldegheri, Gregory Alldritt and Paul Willemse.
There is a distinct Toulousain flavour to the group as the high-flyers’ impressive form this season has seen seven of their players rewarded with call-ups.
Three of those are among the new faces as prop Aldegheri and exciting backs Ramos and Ntamack – the latter being the son of the great Emile – are all included.
Ntamack in particular appears to represent the future as the talented centre/fly-half becomes the second member of last year’s triumphant World Rugby Under-20 Championship side to make the step up to the senior team, after powerhouse prop Demba Bamba.
The pipeline of young French talent appears to be very much flowing.
A winning mentality is something that can translate from club to international level, so it isn’t a shock that Brunel has called on a hefty Toulouse contingent.
“I think their inclusion is not a surprise to anyone,” explained Brunel. “They are at a high-performance club, which plays well. And that is often to these boys’ advantage.
“We see Romain Ntamack in the role of centre, although he is comfortable at 10 and 12, while Thomas Ramos has evolved into a full-back but can also play at fly-half.”
Alldritt, 21, has emerged on to the scene with La Rochelle in recent times and looks set to be France’s second choice at No.8, behind Louis Picamoles.
“He (Alldritt) is a player I know very well, from the youth set-up, who arrived in La Rochelle, began to play and is now an indisputable starter,” said Brunel.
“He has become a No.8 and it is in this position that he particularly interests us.”
Meanwhile, 26-year-old towering Montpellier lock Willemse – who is South African-born but recently French-qualified – brings the coach another option in a strong second row that already boasts the likes of Félix Lambey, Sébastien Vahaamahina and Arthur Iturria.
“He is one of the players with a particularly interesting profile,” added Brunel. “It’s time to see if he can bring us something. We think so.
“We will give him the opportunity to prove himself during the Championship even if he will compete with other players.”
Despite the inclusion of fresh blood, Brunel can count on his ever-reliable spine of experience running through the team.
Hooker Guilhem Guirado is skipper once again, while Mathieu Bastareaud re-emerged as not only a top-class centre but a mature leader during last year’s Championship.
Morgan Parra, Maxime Medard and Picamoles – all now in their 30s – will bring experience to the scrum-half, full-back and No.8 positions respectively, while fly-half Camille Lopez has fully recovered from the horrific broken ankle which ruled him out of last year’s Championship.
Essentially, the uncapped quintet will have plenty of older heads to lean on in the dressing room and Brunel hopes he has found the winning balance of youth and experience.
Centre of attention
Another interesting nugget to emerge from the 31-man training squad, from which the 23 to face Wales in the 2019 Guinness Six Nations opener on February 1 will be selected, is the proliferation of centres.
Brunel has elected to go with six men whose primary position is in the midfield, while opting for just one out-and-out winger in Yoann Huget.
Both Gael Fickou and Damian Penaud are more than capable of playing on the wing – and the omission of Remy Grosso suggests one of the pair will be starting out wide against Wales on February 1 – but the prospect of Fickou and Wesley Fofana linking up in the midfield has to have French fans salivating.
Fickou has been electric in the centres for Stade Francais this season – making 104 metres with ball in hand, beating 12 defenders, completing 15 tackles and notching a fine individual try against Perpignan in his comeback form injury last weekend – yet the presence of Bastareaud, so impressive in the 2018 Championship, could force him to the wing.
Whatever the decision, Brunel has given himself options in the all-important 12 and 13 channels and Les Bleus will be one of the most fascinating teams to keep an eye on in this year’s Guinness Six Nations.