Predicting a French backline from one week to the next has been no easy task over the last four years and that remains the case heading into the Rugby World Cup in Japan.
One thing we know for certain is that the team that lined up to face Italy in Rome in the Guinness Six Nations finale will not be the same as opens up in Japan against Argentina.
And yet, there is a chance that the team is not that dissimilar, with six members of that backline included in France’s 31-man World Cup squad.
While Mathieu Bastareaud is the odd man out, Jacques Brunel is not short of options in the midfield.
His 14 backs include four out-and-out centres, as well as Damian Penaud, who spent much of his early career in the No.13 jersey before shifting to the wing where he has thrived.
In place of Bastareaud, it is in-form Sofiane Guitoune, perhaps the most consistent performer in Toulouse’s title-winning campaign, who is back in the frame to start once again.
An elegant runner with a knack for scoring tries, Guitoune last played for France in 2015, but has been very much deserving of a recall after an outstanding campaign in la Ville Rose.
The make-up of the midfield is an interesting conundrum for Brunel, whose coaching staff has been bolstered by the arrivals of Fabien Galthié and Laurent Labit, who will continue working together with France into the 2020 season.
However, everything starts with the half-backs, where France have at least three options in both roles.
At scrum-half, Antoine Dupont looked to have established himself as first choice by the end of the Guinness Six Nations, and his performances for Toulouse have done little to change that hierarchy.
Capable of filling in at fly-half when required, Dupont provides a combination of speed and power that is rare among scrum-halves.
In the second half of the Six Nations he combined with Romain Ntamack in the half-backs, the 20-year-old from Toulouse stepping up in impressive fashion.
Based purely on international form, that would appear to be the first-choice combination, although Ntamack played almost exclusively in the centres for Toulouse, and was arguably behind both Dupont and full-back Thomas Ramos in terms of French fly-half options for the eventual Top 14 champions.
If Brunel wants to look elsewhere, Camille Lopez is comfortably the most experienced of his fly-halves, and will likely get at least one opportunity to stake a claim during the warm-up matches against Scotland and Italy.
Like Ntamack, he can kick, although is not first choice from the tee for his club. That opens up an interesting decision over whether Ramos gets a nod somewhere in the starting XV, as one of the most consistent goal-kickers in the squad.
Ramos is primarily a full-back, but started both of Toulouse’s Top 14 knock-out games at ten, and despite a couple of shaky moments, performed very well in the final.
The possibility of Dupont playing at ten would also resolve the goal-kicking issue, with Maxime Machenaud and Baptiste Serin both reliable goal-kickers.
TAKING CENTRE STAGE
As well as Guitoune, Brunel can also call on the experience of trio Wesley Fofana, Geoffrey Doumayrou and Gaël Fickou in the centres.
All three are versatile enough to slot into either the No.12 or No.13 jerseys, while Ntamack also made his international debut in the midfield.
Fofana, who will retire from Tests after the World Cup, is the most experienced of the French centres, compared with Guitoune, who has won all five of his caps on the wing.
The pair would appear to be complementary, however, and will likely get an opportunity together during the warm-ups.
BACK THREE CALLS
The one uncapped back in the French squad is Clermont winger Alivereti Raka, who has had to bide his time in his wait for international recognition.
Injuries at the wrong moment have delayed a Test debut, but he will surely make his France bow this summer.
Raka joins Clermont teammate Damian Penaud as well as Toulouse’s Yoann Huget among the wing options, while Maxime Médard will challenge Ramos for the starting full-back spot.
Huget arguably got the better of Raka in the French Top 14 final, scoring a double to help les Rouge et Noir to the title, and was first choice opposite Penaud by the end of the Guinness Six Nations.
However, Raka was still returning to his best form after tearing his ACL last season, and Brunel and his staff will be hopeful of seeing the uncapped 24-year-old back at full speed after an intense preparation period.
The 14 players mentioned above, along with reserve duo Anthony Belleau and Vincent Rattez, are currently pencilled in as France’s back-line options for the World Cup.
However previous experience has shown that players can come out of nowhere to feature on the global stage, not least scrum-half Jean-Marc Doussain who made his debut in the 2011 World Cup final.
Even if nobody comes from outside the initial squad to feature in Japan, there is a generation emerging who should play an increasingly large role from 2020 onwards.
Les Bleuets have won back-to-back World Rugby Under-20s Championships, with Ntamack having played a key role in the first of those titles before getting his senior call-up.
His playmaking partnership with Louis Carbonel flourished in 2018, and the Toulon fly-half then took on an even bigger role in 2019.
He will be battling Belleau for the starting No.10 role at Toulon, but has shown enough to indicate that he could feature sooner rather than later at international level.
The other fly-half who remains on the radar is Matthieu Jalibert, the Bordeaux youngster who suffered a knee injury in his Test debut last year, but is now fully fit again.
He is in a similar situation to scrum-half Baptiste Couilloud, who made his international bow in the 2018 Championship before a broken leg denied him a chance to push for a World Cup spot.
Of the others to feature in those successful age-group sides, Arthur Vincent captained this year’s team, having played a smaller role last year where Pierre-Louis Barassi was first choice at outside centre.
Both players have performed well at Top 14 level, Vincent with Montpellier and Barassi at Lyon, and could come into consideration in 2020.
Similarly, Lucas Tauzin was hugely impressive for Toulouse this season, particularly in Europe. While injury kept him out of the end of the season, he racked up five tries in nine starts in the league and will be pushing for even greater game time next season.
The next few weeks should give us a better idea of what France’s first-choice backline will look like in Japan.
What is sure is that there is plenty of talent waiting in the wings, in Japan and beyond.