Tuesday, October 14, 2014

France's young rugby guns who could herald Les Bleus' revival

Racing Métro winger Teddy Thomas ... one of the young stars lighting up French rugby.
Photo: Racing Métro
TIME for a break from media and politics with a treatise on Gallic rugby, especially after a diet of gloom and doom results and stories since France almost won the World Cup in New Zealand in 2011.

As François Valentin writes, if the Top 14 competition is the El Dorado for many international superstars, the recent call-ups of Teddy Thomas, Charles Ollivon and Xavier Chiocci act as a reminder that France still has some very good local talent.

Here is a young, but competitive XV with very few caps (if any) that could form the backbone of Les Bleus in the next few years.

15 Geoffrey Palis (23 years old, Castres)
In his first season in the Top 14, and despite the presence of Brice Dulin (who is only a year older), Palis played 16 matches for a total of 103 points. Yes, Palis also kicks at goal, and is a pretty good shot too. That golden boot and his capacity to find space earned him a spot in the French 30-man list during the last Six Nations, although he didn't make his debut. Close behind, Darly Domvo hogged the full-back position for Bordeaux, starting 19 times last year and Hugo Bonneval from Stade Français is another huge talent, although he is currently recovering from a torn ACL.


14 Marvin O'Connor (23, Bayonne)
If he inherited his love for surf and his name from his Australian father and ex-rugby league player, O'Connor is very much French. Already a veteran in Bayonne (in his fifth season), O'Connor benefits from his speed and small size to wriggle through defenses. He's been on the wrong end of a number of high hits, and probably been the cause of more sin-binnings than any other player over the last couple of seasons because of his height and low centre of gravity. A more exotic solution would be the Fijian-born Virimi Vakatawa, currently outstanding with the French sevens team.

Gaël Fickou ... winning try against
England at 19. Photo: Sport Asia
13 Gaël Fickou (20, Toulouse)
Fickou is the exception in our team of future stars... Because of his incredible talent we forget that he can't buy alcohol in the United States. He played his first Heineken Cup match at 18, scoring the only try against Leicester, he scored the winning try against England at 19, and already has nine caps at 20, Fickou has done it all. Except that his development has stalled over the last year in a struggling Toulouse side. Still, he's got the potential to be a global superstar. Noa Nakaitaci from Clermont is a great technical utility back.

12 Jonathan Danty (21, Stade Français)
He's powerful, black, Parisian, and plays centre. It's hardly surprising that Danty has been likened to Mathieu Bastareaud since bursting onto the scene, but he's a different type of midfielder. Much lighter than the Toulon man at "only" 93kg, Danty combines good footwork with his power to create gaps. In a second playmaker role, Mathieu Ugalde at Bayonne is also promising.

11 Teddy Thomas (21, Racing Métro)
For those who watched the trainwreck that was Biarritz's last two seasons, Thomas will have stood out, and not just for his dreadlocks. Two years ago, Thomas scored four tries in his first five matches. A great athlete, with a fantastic footwork, Thomas has caught the eye of Philippe Saint-André after making a quick transition with new club Racing Métro where he has made a flying start to the season. Saint-André should also take a close look at Arthur Bonneval (Hugo's younger brother) from Toulouse who can also play in the centres and is still just 19.

10 Enzo Selponi (21, Montpellier)
It would be easy to talk up Jules Plisson, who made his international debut earlier this year, but we believe Selponi deserves credit for his fantastic first season with Montpellier. In fact his impressive early performances last year might be part of the reason why François Trinh-Duc has come back so strongly. At age group level Clément Otazo of Bayonne was rated even higher than Selponi, but his development has been hampered by a serious knee injury.

9 Eric Escande (21, Toulon)
Another product of the Montpellier academy, Escande became more than just a back-up player last year, challenging the talented Jonathan Pelissié and Benoit Paillaugue for game time. Nonetheless, he decided to head to Toulon with the hope of becoming a regular starter and has already made his debut for the Top 14 champions. Jean-Baptiste Serin from Bordeaux, and teammate Yann Lesgourgues could have made it in our XV as well and both have big futures.

8 Charles Ollivon (21, Bayonne)
A naturally gifted player, Ollivon has become the go-to man for Bayonne, and really grabbed the headlines on the opening day against Toulon. A symbol of Bayonne's "young guard", Ollivon will be a big part of Bayonne's battle for survival. His stunning start to the season earned him a call-up to the French squad for a training camp, and given the extended absence of Louis Picamoles, he stands a good chance of earning a first cap in November. Gillian Galan at Toulouse is also bursting with potential but has been slowed by injuries.

7 Kélian Galletier (22, Montpellier)
For those not paying attention, you could easily think commentators are talking about Montpellier coach Fabien Galthié but young back rower Galletier is beginning to make a name for himself. Verstaile enough to play openside or blindside flanker, he can occasionally fill in at number eight, and is well-integrated in the squad. Still more of a back-up at the moment with Montpellier's back row stocks, but he has the physical talents to establish himself at club level at least in the next few years.

6 Yacouba Camara (20, Toulouse)
Yacouba Camara ... compared to Yannick Nyanga.
Photo: Stade Toulouse
What were you doing when you were 19? Yacouba Camara played 13 matches for the most prestigious French club. Not bad. Many compare him to his mentor, Yannick Nyanga, for his great tackling but also his ball carrying skills. If Saint-André often mentions him as prospect, he has never played at the international level. He was called in for the physical tests last year though, and apparently blew the coaching staff away with his results. Mathieu Babillot of Castres looks a good potential back-up.

5 Paul Jedrasiak (21, Clermont)
It's a make or break season for the former France U20s captain at Clermont, but an early appearance against Toulouse is a good sign for Jedrasiak. Very powerful and effective in the lineouts, he has been the essential man in Fabien Pelous' age group teams. However, he may soon have competition at Clermont from Jean-Baptiste Singer, another star of the French age group sides.

4 Romain Taofifenua (24, Toulon)
Older, but perhaps not as well known as his former Perpignan teammate Sébastien Vahaamahina. Taofifenua made an incredible complement to his agile ex-teammate in Perpignan. Very powerful and real colossus (2m and 133kg), Taofifenua is becoming a key player in Toulon already and was called in for the French training camp. Already capped twice, Taofifenua looks like the natural successor to Pascal Papé.

3 Rabah Slimani (24, Stade Français)
Getting the nod over La Rochelle's Kiwi giant Uini Atonio, Slimani is one of the more established members of this team. Born in the Parisian suburbs, Slimani is a pure Stade Français product, and one of the rare French tightheads in the Top 14. Very powerful in the scrum, and in the long line of technically gifted French scrummagers, Slimani might push Nicolas Mas into retirement.

2 Christopher Tolofua (20, Toulouse)
A YouTube star in 2011-2012 (see below) when he smashed Juan Imhoff on his Top 14 debut, Tolofua - of Wallis and Futuna heritage in the Pacific - enjoyed success very young. Backing up William Servat, he earned his first cap against Argentina that same season. However since then he has struggled to kick on, with major issues surrounding his lineout throwing. Challenged by Corey Flynn, he seems to have improved in that sector in the last 12 months, but there is still work to be done. His Toulouse teammate Cyril Baille is also a future star, but it's not clear yet whether that will be at hooker or loosehead.

1 Xavier Chiocci (24, Toulon)
A real no brainer for this one. Xavier Chiocci, elected second best loosehead prop of the Top 14 last season by Rugbyrama, should become a great addition to the French scrum. Blocked by Andrew Sheridan when he first came through, he rose to number one in Toulon when injuries slowed down Sheridan. Raphaël Chaume of Clermont is also excellent as some Leinster fans might recall. Jefferson Poirot might be the best of the lot though, in Bordeaux.

François Valentin is an independent commentator who frequently writes for Planet Rugby. This article is republished with his permission.

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