For the second season running France will hand a 19-year-old his Test debut as a starter in the opening game of the Guinness Six Nations.
While Matthieu Jalibert came from nowhere to start at fly-half against Ireland a year ago, Romain Ntamack’s path to the national team has seemed inevitable for a long time.
The Toulouse player will make his debut against Wales at the Stade de France on Friday after being selected in the centres by Jacques Brunel.
The son of Emile, the great international three-quarter in the 1990s, Ntamack has flourished this season at club level and is now rewarded with a first cap.
SUCCESS AT AGE GROUP LEVEL
While he has not yet turned 20, there has been talk of Ntamack within French rugby circles for a while now, thanks in large part to his performance in the French age group levels.
Called up to France Under-18s while he was a year young, he then featured for the Under-20s in 2017 when he was still just 17.
Following in the footsteps of Gaël Fickou, the last player to play for the Under-20s while two years underage, Ntamack was part of the French team that reached the semi-final of the World Cup.
He clearly impressed, even earning a spot on France’s elite list under previous coach Guy Novès.
The following year he was back with the Under-20s, playing with a little more confidence as France claimed the Six Nations title.
FROM FLY-HALF TO CENTRE
Everything changed for Ntamack during the Under-20s World Championship on home soil last summer.
With Louis Carbonel, the French had two top quality operators at fly-half, and in the final pool match Sébastien Piqueronies chose to play them together, with Ntamack shifting to inside centre.
The experiment worked a charm as France cruised past South Africa before kicking on with victory over New Zealand in the semi-final – when Ntamack scored the only try – and then England in the final.
Since then Ntamack has become a key cog in the Toulouse midfield, helping the French giants to the top of the Top 14.
And while he first broke through as a fly-half, it is at centre that he will get his first taste of international rugby, surrounded by a pair of Clermont players, Camille Lopez at ten, and Wesley Fofana at outside centre.
THE FIRST CAP
Even when Ntamack was called into the France squad for the Guinness Six Nations, few expected him to be involved in the first game against Wales.
With experienced players like Fofana and vice-captain Mathieu Bastareaud, Jacques Brunel could have stuck with a more conservative side to face Wales.
However, as he did with Jalibert a year ago, the France coach was not afraid to give an in-form teenager a chance.
Brunel explained: “Everyone recognises the quality of the kid. We’ve been expecting him for a while. He’s shown since the start of the season that he can adapt to the level he is faced with. He still has another step to take but we don’t doubt that he can overcome that obstacle.”
So Ntamack will get his chance on Friday for the most important game of his career to date.
Like his father Emile in 1994, he will debut against Wales; a match in which Alain Penaud, the father of winger Damian, also started for France.
Emile finished his career with 46 caps and a Grand Slam in 1997. The future will tell us whether Romain can match him, or do even better.