An aspect synonymous with the French national team is the scrum-half who kicks for goal. At odds to most playing nations, for a number nine across the Channel, an ability to place kick almost seems as important as having a strong pass. Over the years many famous players have donned the shirt such as Jean-Baptiste Elissalde and Dimitri Yachvilli, but when they move on it always seems like there are at least a few capable replacements waiting in the wings. With such a plethora of options available going into the Ireland game on Saturday, Maxime Machenaud of Racing Metro has been given the nod. Have they made the right choice? Here are some of the men who might have been considered for the role.
A mercurial individual undoubtedly capable of both the sublime and the very poor, Michalak is versatile (another common French half-back trait) and spent most of France’s dismal last 6 nations campaign struggling at fly-half. He was in the international wilderness for several years until an improvement in form at new club side Toulon earned him a recall last year. 59 caps and 329 international points prove pedigree, but if he were to be involved in the setup again it would more likely be at no.10. His complete removal from the squad for this year’s championship probably suggests that he officially blew his chance with a series of underwhelming performances last season. I think few can argue that it is time to move on.
Injury at the start of the tournament ruled the Clermont man out of contention early on. A lack of match practice saw him turn out for Clermont instead of Les Bleus on a Six Nations match weekend, but during the game he was cited for a needless headbutt on opponent Rene Ranger. Phillip Saint-Andre had recalled Parra to the squad to travel to Murrayfield, but a late decision to hand him a two week ban ruled him out of participation. Had he been fit and kept his discipline surely he would have been first choice for this championship. With over 50 caps and nearly 300 points to his name, Parra is a master of his trade. A typically annoying and tricky number 9 with a good pass, strong tactical kicking game, and excellent success rate in front of goal, he would be welcome in most sides across the world of rugby. Although he is eligible for the last game of the tournament I feel the French coaching staff have made the right call in not drafting him in for one game and disrupting the squad. Initial injury and then his tendency to lose his cool has cost him his place in this year’s championship, a shame for both himself, French supporters and the neutral.
At 23 Doussain is one of the rising stars of French rugby. Capable in both the scrum-half and fly-half slots, the stocky Toulouse man is strong in attack and excellent in defence. With his international career only in its fledgling stage, he only has 9 caps to his name, but in Parra’s absence was entrusted with the no.9 shirt at the start of the championships. His unusually built frame for a half-back adds extra bulk in attack for the French and his commanding performance at fly-half for Toulouse in their Heineken cup triumph over Saracens in round 5 showed his exciting potential. Doussain held his nerve to nudge over the winning kick for Les Bleus in Edinburgh last week, but he had lost his starting place after a shaky performance in Cardiff the game before. As yet, his kicking is maybe slightly less refined than some of his rivals and he has plenty of fine tuning to do before he can nail down a starting berth. A good player to have on the bench due to his impact and versatility, there will be much to come from Doussian in the future.
The man charged with conducting France to a home victory against the Irish is Maxime Machenaud, aged 25, from Bordeaux. Again, Machenaud’s international career has been brief, with only 15 appearances, the first of those coming against Argentina in 2012. The young Racing Metro star, who recently has had to face much more competition for his place at club level with the arrival of Mike Phillips, is ever improving, and to my mind is the best option to take the reigns on Saturday evening. When Doussain struggled against Wales in a truly awful performance from almost the entire French team, Machenaud injected some pace and enthusiasm to proceedings from the bench. This promising cameo was then backed up by a solid display against Scotland last week which featured one of the best passes I have ever seen. Scragged by a Scottish back row, the No.9 launched a no-look overhead pass 15 metres behind him straight into the hands of Jules Plisson who could subsequently start an attack, when the chances of France even retaining possession looked unlikely. Pieces of flair such as that are evident in his game and the combination of ability and confidence to do something different to unlock a defence, are admirable qualities for a scrum-half to possess. Machenaud kicked well from the tee last week, and although his box-kicking needs to improve from that showing, I believe he is the best no.9 for the job in what will be a very hard fought encounter in Paris.