The Rugby World Cup continues to approach at a rapid rate with the tournament beginning in less than 30 days and most teams having already announced their squads.
That cannot be said for host nation France, who are yet to confirm their 33-man group and this shows in selection.
Head coach Fabien Galthie is offering what could be a final shot for players almost across the board in another much-changed side. The alarming thing is that this Les Bleus team is still very strong and will be eager to improve on last weekend’s performance that saw them only just sneak a win against Scotland.
Meanwhile, Fiji have already confirmed their World Cup squad and will be looking at this Test as a real chance to make a statement. That being said the selection is strong but not quite loaded with their first-choice options.
All of this makes for a fascinating Test in Nantes with every minute of preparation ahead of the global showpiece counting.
Where the game will be won
The breakdown will be absolutely critical and the visitors have the expert Levani Botia in their ranks, who plies his trade in France like several of his team-mates.
Meanwhile, for France the likes of stand-in skipper Gregory Alldritt, returning Francois Cros and even centre Jonathan Danty can influence the game in that regard.
The next area is the set-piece. Fiji are renowned for their ability to score free-flowing tries and flood the game with flair, as are France to their own degree, but with the modern game’s emphasis on set-piece that has to be squared off and looked after.
Loosehead Eroni Mawi has shown his scrummaging prowess at Saracens this season but faces Uini Atonio in a tasty battle. If Fiji achieve parity in the scrum it provides an interesting platform for their glorious backs to work with. However, the power game of France is never to be underestimated.
The final focal point will be discipline which has firmly been in the spotlight this week. A card can quickly change the complexion of a game and for two physical sides, keeping 15 players on the field for the whole game is not as simple a task as it once was.
What they said
Galthie talked up his now two top fly-halves Antoine Hastoy and Matthieu Jalibert, who are more important now after Romain Ntamack was ruled out of the World Cup with a knee injury.
“I also want to talk about Matthieu Jalibert and Antoine Hastoy. It’s their destiny. It’s written. They must believe in themselves. It’s time to go. Antoine Hastoy has been with us since the tour in Australia a little more than two years ago,” Galthie said.
Meanwhile, Fiji boss Simon Raiwalui believes it’s a great opportunity for his side to face up to one of the world’s best.
“This is one of the best opportunities to test ourselves in various areas. The whole team has been working hard for the past few days since arriving at Pornic and we are ready for the match,” he said.
“It’s a huge game for us as France have been playing really good rugby and while World Cup is here, there is a lot of interest in rugby and in the French team who are always a tough opponent to beat.”
Players to watch
Robust centre Jonathan Danty will have a big role to play this weekend against a very accomplished opposite number in Semi Radradra. However, the Frenchman boasts huge quality himself both with ball in hand through his busting carries or in defence with his hard hits and breakdown prowess. It will be a titanic battle in the 12 channel.
Ntamack’s injury is a door wide open for Antoine Hastoy who should be heading to the World Cup. He is probably behind Jalibert in the pecking order but is a quality operator and a player who has only gotten better under the tutelage of Ronan O’Gara at La Rochelle. The fly-half will be brimming with confidence and must look to stand up in what is quite frankly a golden opportunity.
— Champions Cup France (@ChampionsCup_FR) December 17, 2022
Gregory Alldritt captains the side and will be looking to continue operating as he usually does. That means a high work rate on both sides of the ball. The number eight will not be shy to carry frequently whether off number nine Maxime Lucu or clever little snipes of his own. He will also defend bravely and look to lead by example. Expect the star to be one of the better players on the field on Saturday.
Semi Radradra is right up there with the best centres in the world in every facet. His running ability is remarkable, his offloading ability even better and his rugby IQ off the charts. Put simply, the Fijian is a pure joy to watch and has the ability to take the game on himself. Fortunately for him there is plenty of running power around him, making for an exciting backline in prospect.
📂 Semi Radradra
└📂 Disgusting offloads
— Bristol Bears 🐻 (@BristolBears) December 18, 2022
Scrum-half Frank Lomani is a neat player who looks far more experienced than he actually is. His distribution is usually particularly accurate and his experience around the world allows him to provide structure to the flair-filled Fijians. He will need to make clever decisions throughout the game to keep his team in the right areas and playing at the right tempo.
Loosehead Eroni Mawi has already been mentioned for his scrummaging but he has a more complete influence as he is generally neat on both sides of the ball, particularly in the carry. It is a massive game for him and one where he can prove that he can match up to some of the best in the world.
This week’s battle features two players who face each other regularly in the Top 14 and two players who are right at the top of the world in terms of their quality. It is Francois Cros and Levani Botia.
Cros makes a timely return from injury and Galthie will be hoping he hits his straps quickly. The flank is an absolute tackle machine and will cover every blade of grass on the pitch. He is a coach’s dream in that sense. He may not have the heightened breakdown prowess of Botia but will probably outwork him. Cros is no slouch with ball in hand either as he is a master of the pick and go, particularly near the line.
Botia, who once worked in a prison, is a fascinating player equally comfortable on the flank or in the 12 channel. The Fijian can run well with the ball, like his compatriots, but where he breaks the game is at the breakdown. Very few can match his technique and timing – if Botia is on song and the French side are slow at the breakdown he will have an absolute field day.
An incredible performance from Levani Botia at the breakdown so far. 🔥pic.twitter.com/dz6WcQB5Tr
— Planet Rugby (@PlanetRugby) April 9, 2023
The clash is set up to be a thriller. France need a good win but Fiji are quality and will be ready to rattle the cage. The hosts do have more quality in their 23 compared to the Fijians but it will be a close-fought game. France by 10.
2020: France won 28-0 in Vannes
2018: Fiji won 21-14 in Paris
2014: France won 40-15 in Marseille
2010: France won 34-12 in Nantes
2003: France won 61-13 in Brisbane
2001: France won 77-10 in Saint-Etienne
1999: France won 28-19 in Toulouse
1998: France won 34-9 in Suva
France: 15 Melvyn Jaminet, 14 Louis Bielle-Biarrey, 13 Arthur Vincent, 12 Jonathan Danty, 11 Yoram Moefana, 10 Antoine Hastoy, 9 Maxime Lucu, 8 Gregory Alldritt (c), 7 Dylan Cretin, 6 Francois Cros, 5 Paul Willemse, 4 Florian Verhaeghe, 3 Uini Atonio, 2 Peato Mauvaka, 1 Reda Wardi
Replacements: 16 Pierre Bourgarit, 17 Jean-Baptiste Gros, 18 Thomas Laclayat, 19 Bastien Chalureau, 20 Thibaud Flament, 21 Sekou Macalou, 22 Baptiste Serin, 23 Matthieu Jalibert
Fiji: 15 Sireli Maqala, 14 Josua Tuisova, 13 Iosefo Masi, 12 Semi Radradra (c), 11 Vinaya Habosi, 10 Caleb Muntz, 9 Frank Lomani, 8 Viliame Mata, 7 Levani Botia, 6 Meli Derenalagi, 5 Te Ahiwaru Cirikidaveta, 4 Isoa Nasilasila, 3 Mesake Doge, 2 Tevita Ikanivere, 1 Eroni Mawi
Replacements: 16 Sam Matavesi, 17 Peni Ravai, 18 Luke Tagi, 19 Temo Mayanavanua, 20 Albert Tuisue, 21 Simione Kuruvoli, 22 Jiuta Wainiqolo, 23 Ilaisa Droasese
Date: Saturday, August 19
Venue: Stade de la Beaujoire, Nantes
Kick-off: 21:05 local (20:05 BST, 19:05 GMT)
Referee: Nika Amashukeli (Georgia)
Assistant Referees: Andrea Piardi (Italy), Federico Vedovelli (Italy)
TMO: Ian Tempest (England)