Preview: France v Tonga

Date published: November 15 2013

France will aim to erase the memories of their humiliating defeat at the 2011 World Cup when they host Tonga in Le Havre on Saturday.

France will aim to erase the memories of their humiliating defeat to Tonga at the 2011 World Cup when they host the Islanders in Le Havre on Saturday.

Having won just once in nine Tests this year, les Bleus desperately need a morale-boost ahead of next week's clash with South Africa.

A tussle with a Tongan side that lost to Romania last week thus offers Philipe Saint-André's team a chance to kill two birds with one stone.

Saint-André has put the accent on youth after making five changes to the starting XV that pushed the All Blacks so close last week.

Exciting Perpignan finisher Sofiane Guitoune gets his first ever cap while talented teenage Toulouse centre Gael Fickou. The inclusion of 24-year-old Guitoune is particularly interesting as the Algerian-born wing had hardly played any top flight rugby until this season.

Previous spells with Agen and Albi in the second division, and a cruciate knee ligament injury in his first season with Perpignan, had limited his exposure to the Top 14 to just handful of matches.

But with six tries in his first six matches for the Catalans this season, he shot to the summit of the Top 14 try-scoring charts and to the attention of the French selectors.

Twice, in September and October, he was called up to training camps but now the flying winger, who has also played at centre and full-back, will get his chance to show his talents on the international stage.

“I expect him to have a great match, he's a player who just lives and breathes rugby, he's a finisher who also senses the line,” said Saint-André.

“He has the ability to find space and the right timing.”

At 19, Fickou has already sampled the heady atmosphere of international rugby as a replacement, having come on for five minutes in the 23-16 victory over Scotland last March, and played the last 13 minutes against the All Blacks.

He will line up alongside 24-year-old Wesley Fofana at centre, with Fofana making his 20th appearance, and

“They finished the game in the centre together last week, they are both very young for centres, but Wesley is starting to get a fair bit of experience,” Saint-André explained.

Guitoune will be up against familiar faces as two of his Perpignan team-mates will start for Tonga.

Centre Sione Piukala and prop Alisona Taumalolo both ply their trade in Catalonia while number eight Opeti Fonua plays for Bayonne in the nearby Basque country.

Yet the other four of the seven French-based players are playing in the second division, perhaps demonstrating the difference in talent available to the two nations.

In fact, Tonga have few players playing top level rugby at big clubs. Sione Kalamafoni is at Sale Sharks but hooker Elvis Taione plays for Jersey in the English second division, fly-half Fangatapu Apikotoa plays in his homeland while captain and flanker Nili Latu is one of handful playing Japan, alongside centre Siale Piutau, the brother of new All Blacks sensation Charles Piutau, who scored one try and set up the other with an outlandish pass against les Bleus at the Stade de France last weekend.

Although Tonga beat France in their last meeting, a 19-14 pool-stage success at the 2011 World Cup in New Zealand, the Pacific Islanders come into this match in dismal form having lost 19-18 to Romania last weekend.

Yet the tourists will be hoping to evoke some of the spirit of 2011 in their attempts to cause an upset.

And one man who will be at the forefront of that is Taumalolo, a name no French rugby fan could ever forget.

Nicknamed “Dangerous”, he came to the attention of the French public, and rugby fans worldwide, due to his war cries during the last few scrums of that famous World Cup match in Wellington.

“When I saw on him on TV I said: 'who's this crazy guy',” said Guitoune, who then joined Perpignan at the same time as Taumalolo.

“He's still like that, it's his personality. In the changing rooms he's discreet, shy; he doesn't speak very good French but he's funny.

“However, on the pitch, he's a lot less funny!”

Taumalolo himself remembers having an almost out of body experience during his startling appearance against France at the World Cup.

“I was in a trance, I was somewhere else, I was someone else,” he recounted.

“I could have kept pushing in scrums for another entire match. I'm often over-excited when I play.

“I was delighted and proud, I'd always wanted to play for my country. Two weeks before that against the All Blacks I had realised how lucky I was to be there.”

Players to watch:

For France: Competition for places in the French back row is fierce these days with a number of world-class players putting their hands up for selection. Montpellier skipper Fulgence Ouedraogo returns from injury and will need a big game to eclipse the performance of Wenceslas Lauret last week and stay ahead of Yannick Nyanga in the pecking order.

For Tonga: Wing Fetu'u Vainikolo has been in barnstorming form for Exeter Chiefs since moving to the Premiership from Connacht in Ireland. The French will know that giving him any sort of space to run in is a recipe for disaster.

Head-to-head: Look no further than the clash between Nicolas Mas and Sona Taumalolo. Mas is recognised as one of the world's best scrummagers while the try-scoring Tongan loosehead is one of the most mobile props around.

Previous results:

2011: Tonga won 19-14 in Wellington
2005: France won 43-8 in Toulouse
1999: Tonga won 20-16 in Nuku A'lofa
1995: France won 38-10 in Pretoria

Prediction: The internal troubles that led to France's disjointed performance in Wellington two years ago are a thing of the past. Indeed, there only four players from that losing matchday 23 in Saturday's French starting XV and the camp seems like a much happier place under Saint-André. France by 20 points

The teams:

France: 15 Brice Dulin, 14 Sofiane Guitoune, 13 Gael Fickou, 12 Wesley Fofana, 11 Maxime Médard, 10 Rémi Talès, 9 Morgan Parra, 8 Damien Chouly, 7 Fulgence Ouedraogo, 6 Thierry Dusautoir (c), 5 Yoann Maestri, 4 Sebastien Vahaamahina, 3 Nicolas Mas, 2 Dimitri Szarzewski, 1 Yannick Forestier.
Replacements: 16 Benjamin Kayser, 17 Vincent Debaty, 18 Rabah Slimani, 19 Pascale Papé, 20 Bernard Le Roux, 21 Jonathan Pélissié, 22 Frederic Michalak, 13 Mathieu Bastareaud.

Tonga: 15 Vunga Lilo, 14 Fetu'u Vainikolo, 13 Siale Piutau, 12 Sione Piukala, 11 Viliami Helu 10 Fangatapu 'Apikotoa, 9 Taniela Moa, 8 Taniela Moa, Latu (cap.), 7 Nili Latu Langilangi (c), 6 Sione Kalamafoni, 5 Joe Tu'ineau, 4 Lua Lokotui, 3 Tevita Mailau, 2 Taione, 1 Sona Taumalolo.
Replacements: 16 Viliami Ma'asi, 17 Vea, 18 Sila Puafisi, 19 Viliami Ma'afu, 20 Hale T-Pole, 21 Samisoni Fisilau, 22 Latiume Fosita, 23 David Halaifonua

Date: Saturday, November 16