The future is now for Fickou and Edwards

“I’ve seen the future and it runs, tackles, scores tries and is called Gaël Fickou.”

“I’ve seen the future and it runs, tackles, scores tries and is called Gaël Fickou.”

Those were the words of Shaun Edwards eight years ago in his Guardian column describing a then 18-year-old centre who had never played a minute of senior rugby.

Fickou was on the books at Toulon and had just torn it up for France Under-18s at a tournament in Madrid.

Edwards tipped him for senior international recognition sooner rather than later, and he was proved right when Fickou made his Championship bow the following year.

The two men are now working together for the first time, with Edwards having joined the French coaching staff under Fabien Galthié as the defence coach.

Considering how long he has admired Fickou, it should come as no surprise that the three-time Grand Slam winner with Wales has made the Stade Français man the captain of his defence.

Fickou will follow in the footsteps of Jonathan Davies and Jamie Roberts, who both fulfilled the role with Wales, and Edwards has backed him to thrive with the extra responsibility.

“Gaël Fickou will be the captain of the defence. I offered him the job and he accepted,” said Edwards last week.

“I expect him to be a leader of men as Jonathan Davies and Jamie Roberts were with Wales. I’m sure he will become a great defence captain.”

Still only 25, Fickou is the most capped member of this new-look France squad, having reached his half-century of appearances during the World Cup.

There had been some question over whether his midfield partnership with Virimi Vakatawa would continue, with the temptation to start two of France’s three young fly-halves, Matthieu Jalibert and Romain Ntamack, with the latter shifting to inside centre.

Fickou’s importance in defence put paid to that idea, with Ntamack starting at fly-half on Sunday against England and Jalibert having to settle for a spot on the bench.

He has been around so long that it is easy to forget that Fickou is still a relative youngster in international terms.

He is one of just three Frenchmen to reach 50 caps by the age of 25, alongside Morgan Parra and Frédéric Michalak, and at his best there are few tougher players to stop one on one.

In fact Fickou has been around so long that this year he is being coached by one of his former Toulouse teammates in William Servat, the new France forwards coach.

And while the centre will never be the loudest voice in the changing room, he is aware that he needs to take on greater responsibility in a squad packed full of youth.

He said: “I’ve been here for a long time, I’ve played with players who are now my coaches. But that doesn’t change anything, honestly.

“That experience makes everything come more naturally: you speak more, you give your opinion more easily. Then again, I’m quite a simple person, I don’t get too bothered by things, I’m not going to try to teach people anything.

“If I have advice to give, of course I will to help the youngsters, even if they have quickly understood what we’re doing.”

At the World Cup France showed just how dangerous they can be in attack, with new skipper Charles Ollivon scoring one of the tries of the tournament in the quarter-final defeat to Wales.

Fickou was man of the match and went over for a try in the opening win over Argentina, and with the likes of Vakatawa, lethal widemen Damian Penaud and Teddy Thomas, not to mention prolific scrum-half Antoine Dupont, Les Bleus should be a threat to every team they face.

It is in defence, therefore, that they could face their biggest tests. If Edwards can work his magic and create the sort of watertight unit that formed the backbone of recent Welsh successes, then France will be very hard to beat indeed.

Learning Edwards’ system should be made easier by the fact that Galthié, working as an assistant with France in Japan, had used his new defence coach’s methods as a template.

That involves the scrum-half, Dupont, shooting out of the line to put pressure on the opposition fly-half, while usually two men drop back in kick coverage.

Considering France’s struggles against England’s tactical kicking game at Twickenham a year ago, how new man Anthony Bouthier and fly-half Ntamack cope in that domain will be crucial.

But perhaps the most important part will be how Fickou marshals the midfield as they have to deal with the threat of Manu Tuilagi and the rest of England’s big carriers in the pack.

Eight years after Edwards first spotted him, now is the time for Fickou to show he is not just the future, he is the present.