Analysis: France take chance by shifting Fickou wide

Gaël Fickou is the most experienced member of the France squad and was quickly promoted to captain of their defence by Shaun Edwards upon the arrival of the former Wales defence coach.

Gaël Fickou is the most experienced member of the France squad and was quickly promoted to captain of their defence by Shaun Edwards upon the arrival of the former Wales defence coach.

So it is a little ironic that at the moment Edwards returns to Cardiff for the first time on the opposition bench, Fickou will not be playing in his most familiar role in the centres.

France have made just one personnel change to their team to travel to Wales as Virimi Vakatawa comes back into the side having recovered from the arm injury that kept him out of the win over Italy.

His return coincides with Vincent Rattez being ruled out for the remainder of the Championship with a broken fibula.

The expectation was that Rattez would be replaced by Damian Penaud, but the Clermont winger is still struggling with a calf injury that has kept him sidelined for the first two rounds.

That left Fabien Galthié and his coaching staff with a decision to make. Either they could go with a rookie on the wing, Gabriel Ngandebe and Arthur Retière being likely the next in line, or shift Fickou out wide.

It is a position he has played before. In fact the last time France were at Principality Stadium, in the final game of the 2018 Championship, Fickou started on the wing. While he did not always look entirely at home in that game, he did start and finish the sole French try in a 14-13 victory.

That experience out wide, as well as Arthur Vincent’s impressive debut against Italy in the centres, convinced Galthié to pair the former France Under-20s skipper with Vakatawa in the midfield and move Fickou to the wing.

He explained: “With Vincent Rattez injured and Damian Penaud not ready, we decided to bring Virimi Vakatawa into the centres and leave Arthur Vincent, who played very well against Italy, in the centre as well.

“Considering his experience, Gaël Fickou has already played on the wing, and he has the size to go up against George North and his imposing build and threat one-on-one. The choice also comes down to a desire to keep some continuity and not make too many changes.”

It makes sense that France would look to nullify the threat of George North. The winger has scored five of his 40 Test tries against Les Bleus, including a double in last year’s comeback win in Paris.

The challenge for Fickou will not be down to pace, he is arguably the quickest centre in the entire Championship. Positioning, on the other hand, is more of a concern, particularly considering that Fickou has played just two matches on the wing since the start of 2019, once in last year’s heavy defeat to England at Twickenham, and the other in a World Cup warm-up victory over Italy.

Then there is the question of Edwards’ defensive system. For years it was Jamie Roberts and then Jonathan Davies organising the Welsh defence from the midfield, marshalling the back line.

With France, Fickou was quickly identified as the man who could do the same. The question now is whether he will continue to be the spearhead of the French defence while in a new position, or do one of Vincent or Vakatawa take on those duties?

Vincent certainly did not shirk the dirty work in the win over Italy, making 16 tackles in the midfield and missing just one.

But it would be asking a lot for him to take on that sort of responsibility in just his third cap and second start.

Vakatawa, meanwhile, is also just back from injury and will still be getting up to speed with the team.

One thing Vakatawa does have in his favour is that he has previously played in Cardiff, having started for France back in 2016.

He is one of just four men in the matchday 23 with experience of Principality Stadium. Fickou, of course, having twice come off the bench before the wing appearance two years ago. The other two are Racing 92 pair Camille Chat and Bernard le Roux.

That is a result of how young this French team is, but when you consider the unique atmosphere under the roof in Cardiff, it will be a test for such a raw side.

Kicking under the roof is not always easy, even if the conditions will be much easier for Romain Ntamack than a fortnight ago in Paris.

Finding your reference points is a little trickier indoors, especially for Ntamack whose only previous kicking experience under a roof was at Racing’s Paris La Défense Aréna in a European encounter.

Coping with the febrile atmosphere in Cardiff has been an issue for France in recent years, with their last win coming back in 2010.

With Edwards on their side to help them prepare, they have the best possible guide to breaking that hoodoo and keeping their 2020 Guinness Six Nations campaign on track.