Paris - France will host the Rugby World Cup in five years
time and coach Jacques Brunel appeared to have one eye on that objective with
his opening Six Nations team selection against Ireland on Saturday.
The veteran handler plumped for teenage flyhalf Matthieu
Jalibert, a player to whom he handed a senior debut at Bordeaux-Begles less
than five months ago before he was hired as France coach following the hurried
sacking of Guy Noves in December.
While the French selectors will hope Brunel's appointment
brings about a change in playing fortunes, the 64-year-old seems to have
maintained a search begun by Noves during his ill-fated two-year spell in
charge: the quest to find a French equivalent of Jonny Wilkinson or Dan Carter.
At just 19 and with only 15 senior appearances under his
belt, Jalibert appears to be a choice for the future despite Brunel's
insistence he wants to try and win the 2018 Six Nations title.
And even if he doesn't turn out to be as good as a Wilkinson
or Carter, Brunel believes Jalibert could at least emulate versatile former
international halfback Frederik Michalak, a player who made his France debut
16 years ago, just a month after turning 19.
"Remember a certain Michalak, for whom everything went
very quickly," said Brunel.
"It's a bit surprising: we're not used to this kind of
professional trajectory whereas the English picked (Owen) Farrell and (George)
Ford very early.
"They didn't ask questions, they gave them belief.
We're going to try to provide him (Jalibert) with the same conditions and we
hope he'll succeed in the same way as those I've just mentioned."
It continues a trend in France over the last year in which a
number of talented young halfbacks have been thrust onto the international
Baptiste Serin was 22 when he spent most of last year's Six
Nations as first choice scrumhalf before giving way to 20-year-old Antoine
Dupont in November.
One of Noves's last acts was to align a stunningly young and
inexperienced halfback pair against world champions New Zealand in November, as
21-year-old Anthony Belleau lined up outside Dupont - the French were thumped 38-18.
Both will be on the bench against Ireland as hopes are
pinned on Jalibert's young shoulders, although Brunel has opted to select
29-year-old Maxime Machenaud as his halfback partner.
"It's about balance because putting Matthieu Jalibert
at flyhalf, there's an obvious inexperience in that respect," added
"We're sure he'll manage but nevertheless we need
someone with experience who can take the game by the scruff of the neck, bring
a bit of balance to our initiatives and reassure (Jalibert)."
And Brunel gave short shrift to suggestions his side could
be on a hiding to nothing.
"I'm very happy that we're no good, useless, rubbish,
considered the fifth best (above only Italy) in the competition. That suits me
very well," he said defiantly.
For their part, Ireland will be targeting the young
playmaker, although British and Irish Lions flanker CJ Stander insists there
would be nothing unusual about that regardless.
"He plays a good game, he's a very exciting player and
he tries anything from everywhere," said the Munster back-row forward.
"So, from our side, you've to make sure you get in his
face and make sure you get off the line every time."
But Stander added: "We try to do that with all the
flyhalves we play against!
"If he's good enough, and he gets the chance and he can
grab it, it's great for them to back him and let him play now."
France have won only one of their last seven matches against
Ireland, who are lining up a starting XV with more than twice as many caps as