Lopez, not Doussain, the answer for France

Date published: November 17 2016

As France prepare to face Australia on Saturday, François Trinh-Duc is out due to an injury he suffered against Samoa and Toulouse fly-half Jean-Marc Doussain will start.

Spirits must be high in the French camp after an impressive six-try victory against Samoa last weekend. However, nobody doubted that Les Bleus would beat Samoa.

The real test of coach Guy Novès’ progress is Saturday’s match against the Wallabies. Ahead of this historically tough match, Novès announced five changes to his squad on Monday – including Camille Lopez for the first time under his tenure.

It seemed that Novès would be inspired by the impressive combination of Ben Youngs, George Ford and Owen Farrell in England’s match against South Africa, when England’s decision-making axis were excellent, with the French coach needing an equally strong combination if he wanted to challenge Australia.

However, when Novès announced his starting XV on Thursday, Jean-Marc Doussain was named at number ten, with Lopez on the bench.

It has been a long road back for Lopez, given that the last time he played in blue was in March 2015 under previous coach Philippe Saint-André. After that, Lopez withdrew from selection after coming under pressure from his club.

To recap, Clermont wanted Saint-André’s first-choice fly-half to rest his knee, with Lopez having had surgery on his right knee in 2013. Some questioned Lopez’s loyalty to his country after this, saying he wanted to rest so that he would be fit to represent Clermont in the Champions Cup quarter-final.

Lopez spoke out and assured fans it was his surgeon who made the final decision. Whatever the reason for his withdrawal, he has not been selected to play for his country since, despite re-emphasising his desire to rejoin the French ranks in an interview with Rugbyrama back in August.

Due to Trinh-Duc’s broken forearm, Novès has granted the Clermontois his wish. But Lopez will have to settle for the bench this time – a questionable decision to say the least.

Statistical analysis of Lopez’s last five games puts him ahead of rival number tens Trinh-Duc, Jules Plisson and Doussain. The Clermont fly-half’s attacking game is significantly stronger than that of his compatriots. He beats more defenders, makes more clean breaks and covers over double the amount of ground gained by Trinh-Duc or Doussain with the ball in hand.

Tackles Missed Tackles Turnovers Conceded Metres Run Clean Breaks Defenders Beaten
Camille Lopez 28 9 4 140 5 9
François Trinh-Duc 23 6 3 65 3 2
Jules Plisson 13 6 4 105 3 3
Jean-Marc Doussain 28 5 3 65 1 4

Statistical overview of the last five games played by the four French fly-half options. 

The only player who comes close to Lopez in terms of attack is Jules Plisson. Plisson was originally selected by Novès but dropped a few days before the Samoa game. He has been left out once more ahead of this weekend’s match.

The Stade Français pivot is strong in attack but after a three-week suspension for a dangerous tackle he has not had enough game time this season to be considered a safe choice.

Admittedly, of the four players Lopez has missed the most tackles. However he also has made the joint- most, proving his defence is far from a weakness.

What the statistics also don’t show is his reliability when it comes to tactical kicking in recent months.

Many have questioned the consistency of both Trinh-Duc and Lopez in this area in the past. However, in his Top 14 appearances this season Lopez has proven his ability to keep a clear head and make reasoned decisions under pressure.

Another major positive for Lopez, Novès and les Bleus is the connection between the number ten and French centres Wesley Fofana and Rémi Lamerat, who all together at Clermont have been a major factor in the club’s success this season, with les Jaunards currently leading the Top 14.

Fly-half as we’ve discussed before is the most contentiously-debated position in French rugby, and while France’s performance against Samoa last weekend was reassuring, as les Bleus take on bigger and better opponents, they will need a backline combination that clicks.

The facts seem to suggest that this season Camille Lopez was Novès’ best chance of making that happen. Here’s hoping he is given enough time to prove himself on Saturday.

by Becky Grey