France coach Jacques Brunel’s decision to bring back Clermont scrum-half Morgan Parra after more than two years in the international wilderness — while excluding Louis Picamoles, Yoann Huget, Francois Trinh-Duc and Baptiste Serin — will dominate headlines following the announcement of his initial squad for the 2018 Six Nations.
Brunel — who has called-up uncapped players Matthieu Jalibert, Dany Priso, Cedate Gomes Sa, Felix Lambey, Geoffrey Palis and Marco Tauleigne to the 32-player squad for the opener against Ireland — insisted players were selected on form and fitness.
But the 66-cap Parra’s performances for injury-blighted Clermont this season, though uniformly impressive, probably do not count as much as his experience, given the callow youthfulness of the other halfbacks in the squad. Of the two out-and-out No. 10s in the squad, Anthony Belleau has two caps and fellow fly-half Jalibert has none, while Toulouse scrum-half Antoine Dupont, 21, has just six caps to his name.
Of those not on the list, Serin can probably feel most aggrieved at being jettisoned in favour of Parra, though even he would probably admit that Bordeaux teammate Yann Lesgourgues had been more impressive in the first half of the Top 14 season before suffering a season-ending injury. For Bordeaux at least, Serin’s exclusion is nothing but good news.
Picamoles, however, can have few complaints at missing out as he fails Brunel’s form and fitness test. If he’s honest with himself, ‘King’ Louis will know that he has been a shadow of the player who tore-up Six Nations and Premiership pitches for fun last season since returning to Montpellier. This won’t be the last we see of him on the international stage, but he is one player who needs to rediscover his mojo.
But enough of the headlines. Here are four uncapped players, including Jalibert, who could make a big mark on the 2018 Six Nations.
To describe the prop’s rise to the international fold as rapid is an understatement.
La Rochelle coach Patrice Collazo, who knows a thing or two about front-rowers — his squad includes French internationals Uini Atonio, Vincent Pelo and Mohamed Boughanmi — snapped-up Priso, 24, from Stade Francais in the summer of 2016, when he had featured in just four Top 14 and two Champions Cup matches.
While Atonio, Pelo and Boughanmi are hulking monsters on the front line, Priso is more streamlined. Not that his — relative — small size has been a hindrance even in international company.
Priso has started 13 of the 18 games he’s featured in for La Rochelle this season. He’s just as effective in the scrum as the bigger boys, and is rapid and useful in the loose, helped by his youth at Ussel rugby club — a nursery for French international talents Noel Baudry, Pierre Chadebech, Thomas Domingo and Loïc Jacquet — where he played either in the backrow or at centre.
If Priso’s rise has been jet-powered, Bordeaux fly-half Jalibert’s has hit multiple warp factors. He hadn’t played any top-flight rugby until this season, but in just 11 Top 14 and Challenge Cup games — including nine starts — he has become the next great Bleu hope at No. 10.
What is even more remarkable is that the first of his nine club starts was at Toulouse — Nov. 4, 2017 — two days before his 19th birthday. He slotted seven of nine kicks at goal, and marshalled operations with calm precision.
That game ended cruelly. He missed an after-the-hooter 40-plus metre penalty that would have won the match for the visitors by the breadth of an upright.
Since that blow, he’s only improved. There are understandable calls for Brunel to take care with his young halfback star. He is, after all, only 19 and has played just a handful of games in a short space of time.
Some even hoped he would remain with the under-20 squad for another year, but Brunel knows his player better than most. It was, after all, the 63-year-old who gave Jalibert his chance in the first place.
Were it not for a badly-timed injury, Lyon’s lock would surely have won his first cap already. He was included in former coach Guy Noves’ original squad for the November internationals, but was forced to withdraw after picking up a knee injury in a Top 14 game against Oyonnax at the end of October.
Club coach Pierre Mignoni knows his young player’s worth. He has told anyone who would care to listen that Lambey, 23, has not yet reached his immense potential.
It wasn’t always like that. Short of game-time at Lyon two seasons ago, the lock went out on loan to ProD2 side Beziers, not knowing if the club he had been at since he was 18 would want him back.
He barnstormed his way through the second division, featuring in 28 games, and was welcomed back to Lyon with open arms for the start of the 2016/17 season. He then featured in 16 Top 14 matches, growing in confidence and stature.
Lambey has played three times for the French Barbarians — now the country’s official ‘A’ side — against Australia in November 2016 and twice against South Africa as part of last June’s ill-fated tour.
Perhaps the big surprise among the new boys in Brunel’s squad. Not because the Castres Olympique fullback, 26, doesn’t deserve a chance, but because he has played just twice this season after picking up an ACL injury against Stade Francais in April.
His inclusion seems something of a break from Brunel’s form and fitness rule. Toulouse’s Thomas Ramos, for one, has every right to feel a little disappointed given some of his performances this season.
Until that injury late last season, the languid-running Palis looked to have booked himself a place in France’s squad for the June tour of South Africa, with one solid, unassuming performance after another.
He has everything that a fullback needs in their armoury — a howitzer boot, deceptive pace, the ability to slip past defenders, calm dominance under the high ball, and a shuddering tackle.