In the first two weeks of the Guinness Six Nations, few players have done more than Gabin Villière to help their team’s cause.
The French winger helped himself to a hat-trick in the Round 1 win over Italy before playing an equally influential role as Les Bleus saw off Ireland in Paris six days later.
Between his turnovers and his powerful defence, Villière did enough to be voted Guinness Six Nations Player of the Round for Round 2.
What was remarkable about that was that it came despite suffering a facial injury that looks set to keep him out of France’s trip to Scotland in a fortnight.
That leaves Fabien Galthié with a dilemma when it comes to replacing his in-form winger to start alongside Damian Penaud.
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There are two other specialist wingers in the France squad that prepared to take on Ireland, Toulouse’s Matthis Lebel and Racing 92’s Donovan Taofifenua.
The duo were both part of the France Under-20s team that won the world title in 2019, a second successive crown in the case of Lebel.
After a brilliant season for Toulouse in 2020/21, he was rewarded with a first cap against Georgia during the Autumn Nations Series. While Lebel did not do much wrong, he also got little opportunity to shine and has not been able to force his way past Villière and Penaud since.
Taofifenua has been in and around the France squad for a while but is yet to earn a first cap. His recall a fortnight ago came with Teddy Thomas still struggling with a niggle. Thomas would have been the most obvious replacement for Villière, having started four times for France in 2021, the only player to achieve this other than Penaud and Villière.
There is one other player in the squad who plays regularly at club level on the wing, La Rochelle’s versatile Jules Favre. While he originally started out as a centre, he plays a lot of rugby on the wing these days, but like Taofifenua, he is still uncapped.
It would be a big call for Galthié to put his faith in one of the newcomers for a challenge as tough as Edinburgh and dealing with the pace and power of Duhan van der Merwe.
While Villière punches well above his weight, Van der Merwe’s size will be a factor for his replacement.
It is for that reason that Gaël Fickou could be an alternative for Galthié. The defensive captain is a guaranteed starter, and while his preferred position in the midfield, he has started four times on the wing for France under Galthié, including both Championship fixtures against Scotland.
There are two issues that make it a trickier solution this time around, however. In previous campaigns, the form of Arthur Vincent meant that Galthié had three players, Fickou, Vincent and Virimi Vakatawa, vying for two centre spots. Moving one of them out, in this case, Fickou, allowed him to get all three men onto the pitch from the kick-off.
Vincent’s torn ACL will keep him out until next season, while there is still some uncertainty over whether Jonathan Danty, who missed the Ireland game after starting against Italy, will be back.
That leaves Vakatawa, who has not featured for France since last year’s Championship having been hindered by a knee issue, and Yoram Moefana, who made his first start against Ireland, as the realistic options in the centre.
While Moefana looked very comfortable at Test level in such a high-pressure environment, it might be asking a lot to take away Fickou, who provides such assurance in the midfield. While Vakatawa has plenty of experience at the highest level, he and Moefana have never played together, not to mention that Vakatawa will need to ease his way back into Test rugby.
Those would appear to be the main options at Galthié’s disposal. He has not been afraid to throw in the odd wildcard since taking over but it is hard to see what that might be this time around.
Other than those already mentioned, the only other players have started on the wing since the 2019 World Cup are Vincent Rattez and Alivereti Raka. The latter featured only in the final of the Autumn Nations Cup and has fallen down the pecking order, while Rattez also appears to be out of favour, having featured regularly in 2020.
Galthié could reunite Fickou and Vakatawa in midfield while moving Moefana out a spot, a position he has played a little for Bordeaux-Bègles, but it would be a big gamble for the 21-year-old.
Alternatively, plenty of teams have tried playing an extra full-back, so potentially Thomas Ramos or Brice Dulin could come into the back three alongside Melvyn Jaminet. The problem is that Dulin is the only one with any experience on the wing, and that came back in 2015. None of the three possess the size that would solve the issue of Van der Merwe.
Looking miles outside the box, Galthié has spoken of his desire to use Sekou Macalou’s pace to cover wing when playing with a 6-2 bench split and he has played on the wing for Stade Français. It wouldn’t be a huge shock to see him end up out wide at some point in a game, but from the off would be a massive surprise.
Realistically, the decision is between Lebel and Taofifenua. And if Galthié is not happy with either option, then we may see Fickou back on the wing once again.
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