Saint-André unpredictable as ever

Date published: May 20 2015

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Philippe Saint-André is nothing if not unpredictable and his 36-man (or maybe 37) preliminary French squad sprung a few surprises.

There were no outrageous selections like the uncapped Raphaël Lakafia four years ago, and even PSA won't match Marc Lièvremont by giving someone their Test debut with ten minutes to go in a World Cup final, mainly because France shouldn't make it this time.

The biggest question leading up to the announcement was whether François Trinh-Duc would make it, and thankfully for les Bleus he did. Fit-again after his untimely leg break, the Montpellier playmaker remains France's best option at ten, with the other contenders falling thick and fast.

Picked alongside him were Rémi Talès, in fine form for Castres, and Frédéric Michalak, currently injured at Toulon. His broken hand will likely keep him out of the play-offs, but Saint-André wanted a reliable kicker, and despite his flaky reputation, Michalak was given the nod.

As talented as Freddie undoubtedly is, this season has been a rough one, sidelined through injury, and then inconsistent on his return. However his experience has got him into the 36 and he's probably the favourite to start France's World Cup opener partnering Toulon team-mate Sébastien Tillous-Borde.

Saint-André explained that experience was the main criteria at fly-half, with Camille Lopez paying the price for his recent lack of form since returning from injury.

The wildcard at ten is Jules Plisson, who is the 37th man on a list of 36. As he recovers from shoulder surgery he will join the squad for the preparation camp, and seems to be a candidate to make the 31-man final squad although Saint-André was coy on whether he would need an injury to make the plane.

Elsewhere the list was arguably more notable for those who missed out, than those who made it. Xavier Chiocci and Fulgence Ouedraogo were probably the biggest surprises, the former having been tried and discarded in November, while the latter had slipped so far back in the pecking order that he was being talked up as a potential Sevens candidate.

Both face an uphill battle to make the final squad, as does Sébastien Vahaamahina, with the hierarchy in the forwards a lot clearer than behind the scrum.

It's in the backs where nothing is decided, but other than Lopez, the three biggest omissions were the Maximes; Machenaud, Mermoz and Médard.

The former is arguably the form nine in the Top 14, and has been carrying a misfiring Racing-Métro side for weeks now. Add in his much-improved goal-kicking and it's hard to say what more he could have done. Unfortunately for him the trio of Rory Kockott, Morgan Parra, and Tillous-Borde were already established and have done enough in PSA's eyes.

While Machenaud's absence was disappointing, it was not a surprise. Mermoz, on the other hand, looked a better bet to make the squad. The Toulon man was back from injury this week, and remains France's most creative centre.

His distribution skills make him a complementary partner for every centre in the squad, but in the end it’s Alexandre Dumoulin who probably took his spot. The Racing centre has struggled with injury since impressing in November, but he earned a lot of credit with the coaches and is rewarded after proving his fitness.

Backs coach Patrice Lagisquet was at pains to point out that Mermoz's attitude was not a deciding factor, having questioned it earlier this season, but it seems a shame to pass on his skillset.

Jonathan Danty's name also cropped up on a number of occasions, with his lack of Test experience arguably the only reason he missed out. Pierre Bernard at fly-half is another who paid for his lack of caps.

Finally in the back three a resurgent Médard and the dangerous Teddy Thomas both fail to make the cut, the former will be on standby, the latter clearly out of favour having barely played for club or country since February.

Overall there is some coherence to the squad, balanced back-rows and centre partnerships appear to be in the coaches' minds, at long last.

And yet it’s hard to get overly-excited about a squad where Toulon's injured second-choice fly-half will likely head to the World Cup as a starter.

There's the makings of a good side here, and traditionally France raise their game at the World Cup, we’ll need some signs of an actual game plan during the warm-up matches to know whether they can do the same again.

by Paul Eddison

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