France is banking on the talent of tomorrow to heal the rugby scars of the recent past.
Under new coach Guy Noves, France head into their Six Nations opener at home against Italy on Saturday desperate to shake off the stigma of a fraught Rugby World Cup.
The French set records in their last outing in October: The 62-13 spanking by New Zealand in the quarter-finals was their biggest defeat in the World Cup knockout stages, and the most points France has ever conceded.
“The new generation has to show that France is not dead,” says prop Rabah Slimani, one of only five surviving starters from the loss to New Zealand.
Defeat to the All Blacks was acceptable, but not the hands on hips, missed tackles, dropped heads, and overwhelming sense that Les Tricolores gave up.
That brought the curtain down on some fine careers – including for captain Thierry Dusautoir, lock Pascal Pape and prop Nicolas Mas – and left behind a lineup that may cause fans at Stade de France on Saturday to look up an encyclopedia.
“I was honoured to play alongside Thierry, Nico, Pascal,” adds Slimani, now a senior player despite only 21 caps.
“We haven’t proved anything. It’s our turn to do so.”
Noves’ plan so far has been to pick a squad with the 2019 World Cup in mind, freeing them to be ambitious, while at the same time asking the fans for a little patience.
Against Italy, he’s starting four new caps, including winger Virimi Vakatawa, a sevens star who has not played 15s since December 2013.
There are three more uncapped players in the reserves, and the halves pairing of Sebastien Bezy (0 caps) and Jules Plisson (6) is untested but reunites two players from the junior ranks.
France shouldn’t be boring.
Such is the experimental nature of this side that Noves has left it to Bezy and Plisson to decide who takes the penalties.
Noves, a decorated coach with Toulouse at domestic and European level, backs his side to impress.
“They’re young, maybe too young you might say,” he says.
“But what I know for sure is that they won’t let us down in terms of their attitude.”
If his early plans backfire, Noves insists inexperience won’t be used as an excuse.
Italy would potentially have been a decent first challenge if it wasn’t beset by injuries to 10 regulars.
Departing coach Jacques Brunel will start four uncapped players almost by necessity: Back David Odiete, winger Mattia Bellini, prop Andrea Lovotti, and hooker Ornel Gega.