Paris - France is banking on the talent of
tomorrow to heal the scars of the recent past.
Under new coach Guy Noves, France heads
into its Six Nations opener against Italy on Saturday desperate to shake off
the stigma of a fraught Rugby World Cup.
The French set records in their last outing
in October: The 62-13 spanking by New Zealand in the quarterfinals was the
biggest ever defeat in the World Cup knockout stages, and the most points
France has ever conceded.
"The new generation has to show that
France is not dead," says prop Rabah Slimani, one of only five surviving
starters from the loss to New Zealand.
Defeat to the All Blacks was acceptable,
but not the hands on hips, missed tackles, dropped heads, and overwhelming
sense that Les Tricolores gave up.
That brought the curtain down on some fine
careers - including for captain Thierry Dusautoir, lock Pascal Pape and prop
Nicolas Mas - and left behind a line-up that may cause fans at Stade de France
on Saturday to look up an encyclopaedia.
"I was honoured to play alongside
Thierry, Nico, Pascal," adds Slimani, now a senior player despite only 21
caps. "We haven't proved anything. It's our turn to do so."
Noves' plan so far has been to pick a squad
with the 2019 World Cup in mind, freeing them to be ambitious, while at the
same time asking the fans for a little patience.
Against Italy, he's starting four new caps,
including winger Virimi Vakatawa, a sevens star who has not played 15s since
December 2013. There are three more uncapped players in the reserves, and the
halves pairing of Sebastien Bezy (0 caps) and Jules Plisson (6) is untested but
reunites two players from the junior ranks.
France shouldn't be boring.
Such is the experimental nature of this
side that Noves has left it to Bezy and Plisson to decide who takes the
Noves, a decorated coach with Toulouse at
domestic and European level, backs his side to impress.
"They're young, maybe too young you
might say," he says. "But what I know for sure is that they won't let
us down in terms of their attitude."
If his early plans backfire, Noves insists
inexperience won't be used as an excuse.
"We won't hide behind that," he
says. "When a player has potential, you have to pick him. These youngsters
are the future of the France team."
Italy would potentially have been a decent
first test if it wasn't beset by injuries to 10 regulars.
Departing coach Jacques Brunel will start
four uncapped players almost by necessity: Back David Odiete, wing Mattia
Bellini, prop Andrea Lovotti, and hooker Ornel Gega.
Another two uncapped players are in the
reserves, and backup centre Kelly Haimona is back for the first time since last
year's Six Nations, where he broke his arm and had to miss the World Cup.
Ireland at home next week promises to be a
far bigger test for France. The new faces and new outlook just need matches and
time to bed in.
"We haven't beaten Ireland for four
years, the Welsh had a great World Cup despite several major injuries,"
lock Yoann Maestri says. "The English are coming back with a lot of desire
and the Scottish would have beaten (World Cup) finalist Australia if not for a
questionable decision. We have to stay humble."