David Barnes with latest news around French Six Nations squad
“Our team is certainly not the best, but can rival all the others except the All Blacks” Bernard Laporte
French rugby supremo Bernard Laporte says his country will find a place among the three greatest rugby powers on earth. Happily for England boss Eddie Jones, who confronts France in both the Six Nations and the World Cup this year, Laporte adds it will take a decade for his forecast to come true.
“I am ready to put my name to that now,” he goes on, “in view of the reforms we have made at academy level.”
For the moment, Jacques Brunel, his national manager, has echoed that belief in youth when selecting his squad of 31 for their opening two internationals against Wales on February 1 and England nine days later.
Poster boy for this movement is centre Romain Ntamack, 19-year-old prodigy of Toulouse and son of Emile who trod the same path from club to country with such distinction.
England youngsters recall him ruefully for his helping France to become U20 world champions last year by beating them in the final.
There will be much emotion in the Ntamack family when he first steps out for France.
Ntamack is accompanied by another debutant in Thomas Ramos, 23, his Toulouse team-mate at full-back.
Brunel says of the pair: “It is a surprise to no-one to see these players in the squad. They are seen at their best in a club that is producing good, effective performances.
“Romain is a centre, but can also lead the attack. He is between a 10 and 12. He has started the season at a high level and is very consistent.
“Thomas is a full-back who can play fly-half. He can also orchestrate the game and is a formidable goal-kicker.”
There are three more newcomers in prop Dorian Aldegheri, 25, one of seven Toulouse players, La Rochelle flanker Gregory Alldritt, 21, and South African lock Paul Willemse.
Aldegheri was a last-minute selection to replace Cedate Gomes Sa, injured in training. Alldritt, born of a Scottish father, is seen by Brunel as a No.8 who can provide competition for Louis Picamoles.
And Willemse, 26, from Montpellier, left his own country early in protest at being overlooked by national boss Heyneke Meyer, now the team boss of Stade Francais.
He had a French cap in mind from the moment he joined Grenoble when he was 21. At 6ft 7in and over 21st, he brings a massive presence to scrum and lineout.
France won just ten of the 21 games they played under sacked boss Guy Noves and now Brunel. A sad record, of course, but one to which Laporte lends his own rosier perspective.
He says: “I still believe in our World Cup chances. The year has not been positive in terms of results. But, when you look closely, we lost in the final seconds in Ireland, who are beating everybody. Same thing with South Africa.
“We beat the English and the Argentines. We lost by nothing at all in Wales. Our team is certainly not the best, but can rival all the others except the All Blacks.
“France had players who were better than the others ten years ago. That is not the case today, but they are no worse than the others. I am sure we will do great things in 2019.”
Laporte still insists the small fortune Noves seeks from a tribunal next month would be worth paying for the “unity” Brunel has tried to establish between clubs and country.
But his case hardly bears scrutiny in the light of performances, the last of which was the most humiliating, and historic defeat by Fiji at the Stade de France.
An inauspicious debut as sub for another of France’s new generation, Brive prop Demba Bamba, 20, who retains his place in the squad.
Brunel badly needs a respectable Six Nations show to justify the optimism of former Toulon chief Laporte, but is not helped by having to visit both England and Ireland during that campaign.
He must be relieved to be able to select experienced Clermont pair, scrum-half Morgan Parra and centre Wesley Fofana, both out injured during the November internationals.
Especially Parra, who has the profile of a confirmed leader, an attribute France would like to see shared by others in the squad.
Laporte explains: “Of course, that is so, but why? Because French players are not giving the orders in their clubs. I have seen that at Toulon.
“When you recruit foreign players with 80 caps for their countries, they become the leaders.”
No doubt with his own Jonny Wilkinson in mind among others.
This is the squad Brunel selected this week to launch World Cup year:
Poster boy for French youth: Romain Ntamack