France coach Philippe Saint-Andre has nailed his colours to a more youthful mast ahead of the Six Nations, naming four uncapped players in his 30-man training squad.
Three of them – fly-half Jules Plisson, flanker Antoine Burban (the oldest of the quartet at 26) and full-back Hugo Bonneval – are with high-flying Stade Francais. They are joined by Geoffrey Palis, who plays his rugby for reigning Top 14 champions Castres.
Plisson has leapfrogged the more experienced Freddie Michalak and Francois Trinh-Duc in PSA’s pecking order as France look to bounce back from a dismal 2013, which saw them lose eight out of 11 Tests and finish the Six Nations with the wooden spoon for the first time since 1999. And with Morgan Parra, Camille Lopez, Vincent Clerc and Florian Fritz all injured, now is as good a time as any to blood new players.
Here, we take a closer look at France’s four newest recruits.
Name: Jules Plisson
Club: Stade Francais
The omission of Freddie Michalak has been the headline-grabber across the rugby media since the training squad was announced – but it’s no great surprise. He’s pretty much out of favour at Toulon, too, having started only two of club’s 16 Top 14 games this season, and not having played at all since November.
It’s also no great surprise to see that – with Perpignan’s Camille Lopez injured – PSA has turned to a young player who is keeping South African international Morné Steyn out of the Stade Francais starting line-up.
The coach could have selected Montpellier’s Francois Trinh-Duc, but Plisson is the Top 14’s form fly-half. He has a boot like a howitzer, reads the game well, and has nerves of ice – as he proved with a Jonny Wilkinson moment in the second game of the season, when he landed the winning drop goal with the final kick of the game against Perpignan.
Name: Hugo Bonneval
Club: Stade Francais
Bonneval has been one of the French selectors’ ‘ones to watch’ since he first made it into the international reckoning as cover for the injured Vincent Clerc this time last year. Back then, he was not considered ready for the international arena – but his undeniable potential was easily recognised.
Now he is older, wiser, more mature and playing at the top of his game for a team that is – finally – playing at the top of theirs.
He made his professional debut in Stade colours in 2009, and has this year signed a second extension to his contract, which will keep him with the club until 2017.
He’s one of six players in the training 30 who can play at full-back. While that is his favoured club position, he can also play on the wing. That’s not just a string added to his bow. It’s almost a pre-requisite for the back three in PSA’s France.
Name: Antoine Burban
Club: Stade Francais
Plisson’s teammate Antoine Burban may benefit from the injury-related misfortune of others. With Racing’s Wenceslas Lauret on the physio’s couch, PSA has turned to Stade Francais’ powerhouse utility flanker as cover.
It’s the second time that Burban – who signed a three-year contract extension at Stade Jean Bouin in November – has caught the eye of the international selectors. He was in then-coach Marc Lievremont’s plans for the 2009 Six Nations until injury scuppered his chances.
This season, however, he’s been almost ever-present in the Stade squad, and does the hard, dark stuff that flankers have to do just as well as all the eye-grabbing things that made the likes of Sebastian Chabal a household name.
Name: Geoffrey Palis
Club: Castres Olympique
All the Stade players PSA has called up to his Six Nations’ provisional squad have been in the mix before. Which means Palis is, in fact, the only completely new name. And it’s something of a surprise.
That said, the call-up is a reward for a remarkable season with the Top 14 champions since he joined from ProD2 neighbours Albi in the summer.
He came into his own at fullback in November, while Dulin was on international duty. He scored all 22 points, including a well-taken try, as CO won at Montpellier to record their first – and so far only – Top 14 victory on the road this season.
Palis has played on the wing for Castres on occasion, which fits with PSA’s love of the ‘wing-back’. Given there are six players who could fill the full-back position, including Castres’ teammate Brice Dulin, the aforementioned Bonneval, and likely starting wings Yoann Huget and Maxime Medard, it’s most likely Palis is there for the experience this time. Don’t expect him to get a look-in unless there’s an injury crisis.
By James Harrington (@blackmountained)
Photo by: Patrick Khachfe / Onside Images