France excited by Ntamack experiment at 12 against Pumas

·7-min read

Romain Ntamack has been paired at center with veteran Gael Fickou for France's rugby test against Argentina on Saturday, but it's his position next to slick flyhalf Matthieu Jalibert that excites.

Count Fickou for one.

Injury nearly a year ago cost Ntamack his position as France's starting flyhalf. Jalibert stepped in, excelled, and France hasn't looked back. But with injuries to usual midfielders Virimi Vakatawa and Arthur Vincent, Ntamack has been given a first test start at No. 12.

The experiment has been working in training, Fickou said.

"It will go well” this weekend, he added.

“He kicks very well, he has a go, and is very strong defensively. He's a complete player which makes him a very good player who can play 10 or 12. He has all the quality needed.”

Star scrumhalf Antoine Dupont has played with the assurance of a leader since he stepped on the international field four years ago at age 20, and it's no surprise to see him as captain in the absence of flanker Charles Ollivon.

Coach Fabien Galthie is also keen to try more new talent and so lock Thibaud Flament makes his test debut.

Knowing it could get physical against the Pumas, there are six forwards and only two backs on the bench, uncapped scrumhalf Maxime Lucu and center Jonathan Danty.

Meanwhile, perhaps rattled by his team's poor showing in the Rugby Championship, Argentina coach Mauro Ledesma made eight changes following the 32-17 loss to Australia last month.

He's packed his side with eight players from France’s Top 14, including Bordeaux winger Bautista Delguy, Perpignan center Jeronimo de la Fuente, Biarritz scrumhalf Tomas Cubelli who has recovered from a hand injury, and Stade Francais flanker Marcos Kremer.

It might have even been 10 Top 14 starters, but Stade Francais flyhalf Nicolas Sanchez was on the bench as a precaution after hurting his shoulder. He is joined in the reserves by La Rochelle hooker Facundo Bosch.

IRELAND vs JAPAN, Dublin

Ireland coach Andy Farrell wants the country's wannabe international flyhalves to knock Jonathan Sexton off his perch.

Sexton has been the leading No. 10 for a decade and is poised to captain the team in his 100th Irish test against Japan at a packed Lansdowne Road.

His understudies are Joey Carbery and Harry Byrne, while Jack Carty and Billy Burns were overlooked for the autumn series.

Carbery's appearances in the July tests were his first since the 2019 Rugby World Cup, Byrne and Burns have a combined two test starts, and Carty hasn't featured in two years.

Asked if he was worried that Sexton will be 38 by the 2023 Rugby World Cup and still the first-choice pick, Farrell dismissed it.

"Johnny is a world-class player so why would I worry about that?” Farrell posed.

"Johnny isn't just going to stand to the side and say, ‘There you go guys, off you go and take over now.’ We want those guys and other 10s to challenge Johnny and knock him off his perch.

"You don't want to just hand something over to someone that doesn't deserve it. That's not a squad.”

Sexton says he will make a decision after the Six Nations about whether to push on to the World Cup.

He is out of contract with Leinster and Ireland at the end of the season but is keen to continue.

“At the moment I’m loving it,” he said. ”I love the training, my body is good, my mind is good and, in an ideal world, I would love to keep going.

"What I learned last year is that you can't plan too far ahead. I'm taking it game by game, campaign by campaign. The IRFU have been very good to me over the last seven years since I came back from Paris. We made a decision at the end of the Six Nations last year and I don't think it will be any different this year.”

He will become the seventh Irishman to a century of caps.

“I had to wait a long time for my first cap (in 2009) and I'd have been happy to get the one,” he said. "Never in a million years did I think I'd still be playing.”

ITALY vs NEW ZEALAND, Rome

As far as coaching debuts go, opponents don't come much tougher than the All Blacks. Kieran Crowley, new Italy coach and former All Black, is embracing it.

He doesn't have a choice.

“It's a pretty good game to get first up,” he told New Zealand’s Sky Sport this week, tongue in cheek. "We've had 10 days preparation and we are going up against the world's No 1 team that's been playing together for the last four months.”

Asked about the game plan, he said, "We're sorting that out at the moment.”

Defense was the first focus, he added.

Crowley replaced Franco Smith in May after a successful stint with Benetton since 2016. Before that, he’d taken Canada to two Rugby World Cups. He hopes by the end of the next Six Nations to develop a style they can take to the World Cup in 2023 in France.

Italy has never beaten New Zealand, and the odds are one-sided again. He knows he needs to somehow get their confidence up.

"We are up against one hell of a challenge this weekend, but I would hope that our performance that we put out on the paddock will give us a little bit of credibility and respect around the place.

"That's the only way we can move ourselves forward because our record's not great and we've got to change that.”

He wants his players to take the All Blacks off the mental pedestal, to not think of them as All Blacks, which is hard when they’re in all-black gear.

“You've got to take the All Black moniker out of it, it’s just New Zealand. It's just another country against another country,” he said. "What we've got to get into these Italian boys, they’ve got to get some self-belief.”

ENGLAND vs TONGA, London

England is revved up for the match to make amends for a calamitous Six Nations title defense that almost cost Eddie Jones his coaching job, according to scrumhalf Ben Youngs.

Many of the senior players have had eight months to stew on the fifth-place finish. Many were involved in the British and Irish Lions tour of South Africa and others like Youngs were rested while Jones picked young or fringe players for the July wins over the United States and Canada.

Youngs says they regard Tonga's first visit to Twickenham since 1999 as the first chance to erase the stain of England's worst Six Nations.

"It was a really disappointing tournament for us and eight months is a long time. There’s been a lot of rugby since that, but not for England,” he said. "With the crowd back on Saturday, we want to make sure we start getting back in the right direction.”

The first 82,000 sell-out at Twickenham since March 2020 will particularly benefit the forwards, Youngs believed.

“The spectrum is huge from having nothing and being able to hear the strength and conditioning staff and the finishers on the bench shouting, to the roar of 80,000 behind you. It’s incredibly different,” Youngs said.

“Rugby is a game built on emotion. That will always be the case. The pack go toe to toe and do things that normal people don't do, trying to bash the hell out of each other. To do that you need emotion.

“When you’ve got 80,000 screaming that’s a pretty good way to get the adrenaline and arousal levels going.

“It means people like Ellis Genge, Kyle Sinckler, Courtney Lawes and Maro Itoje can fly into things because you feed off that."

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