The future is now for France after Jacques Brunel has given a trio of dynamic young stars an opportunity to shine in the Guinness Six Nations against Scotland this weekend.
Scotland haven’t won in Paris since 1999 and, with Les Bleus coming off back-to-back losses to start this year’s Championship, Brunel has opted for the excitement of youth over the safety of experience to extend that streak.
Antoine Dupont and Romain Ntamack are the all-new half-back pairing – preferred to veteran duo Morgan Parra and Camille Lopez – while Thomas Ramos makes his first start at full-back and prop Etienne Falgoux could be in line for a debut off the bench.
It’s a bold gambit from Brunel but one that could pay dividends and provide the boost Les Bleus so desperately need as they look to get their Championship back on track.
Ever since breaking through as a teenager at Castres back in 2014, Dupont has been touted as the next great French scrum-half and, finally, Brunel could no longer ignore the 22-year-old doing the rugby equivalent of smashing down his door.
The 44-8 defeat to England in this year’s Guinness Six Nations is a match France will want to quickly forget but Dupont provided a genuine spark in his 34 minutes of action after emerging from the bench.
He managed the most line breaks of any player across the entire Round Two weekend with three, topped the offload charts with four and racked up 90.7 metres with ball in hand which put him fifth across the Championship, according to the statistics provided by AWS.
Throw in the scintillating performance he produced on his first Test start against the mighty All Blacks in Paris in 2017 – more metres gained (91), clean breaks (4) and defenders beaten (7) than anyone from either team – and he’s shown glimpses of offering a level of attacking threat from No.9 that is perhaps unique in world rugby.
This will be his first opportunity to start a match for France in 15 months but the Scots will need to be on high alert at the Stade de France.
While Dupont being given the chance from the off has been coming for a while, Ntamack starting at fly-half is perhaps more of a surprise.
The Toulouse star did start the first match of this year’s Guinness Six Nations against Wales but in the centres.
Getting him to conduct proceedings from the No.10 channel, especially with a relatively inexperienced No.9 inside him, is a big ask for a 19-year-old.
But the teenager comes from good stock as the son of Emile Ntamack – the great international three-quarter in the 1990s – and was a key cog in the all-conquering France Under-20s team last year.
He has impressed in the Top 14 this term, so while Brunel has placed a lot of pressure on the shoulders of the Dupont-Ntamack axis, they look well-equipped to cope.
Such is the coach’s faith in the duo – who have just three previous Test starts between them – that the 92 caps of international experience in Parra and Lopez drop out of the 23 completely, with Baptiste Serin and Anthony Belleau the replacement half-backs.
For years France have struggled to nail down a consistent combination at nine and ten – while the likes of Ireland thrive with the reliable Connor Murray-Johnny Sexton pairing – but Dupont and Ntamack have a chance to lay a claim to being the long-term answer.
France’s back-three struggled badly against England at Twickenham, as the hosts consistently exploited the seeming acres of space in behind them with grubber kicks and up-and-unders.
A reshuffle in those positions ahead of welcoming Scotland to the Stade de France this weekend comes as no surprise, with Yoann Huget moving from full-back his more natural position on the wing, forcing Gaël Fickou into the centres where he has been so effective for Stade Francais this season.
That frees up the No.15 jersey for Ramos, and while he may have been Brunel’s selection there anyway – the dropping of Parra and Lopez created a kicking vacancy that needed to be filled.
Up steps the 23-year-old Toulouse man, who only made his international debut off the bench against England but has been sterling from the tee for his in-form club this term.
The pressure will now be on at the highest level, as he goes head-to-head from the tee with one of the best in the business in Greig Laidlaw.
It’s sink or swim for a number of these inexperienced French players but, under incredible pressure, diamonds are formed and Brunel will certainly be hoping that in Dupont, Ntamack and Ramos, he’s found three gems.