Fiji have never beaten France in eight attempts and Philippe Saint-André knows he can’t afford to see that record broken in Marseille.
Les Bleus endured a disastrous June Tour to Australia as they were whitewashed by the Wallabies, a 6-0 defeat in the second Test proving to be their most impressive result.
Since then Serge Blanco has joined the national set-up in a supervisory role, although it’s still not clear exactly how much influence he has on the team itself against a Fiji side that impressed in June and is packed with Top 14 talent.
In any case, the Australian debacle has led to major personnel changes with just eight survivors from the final Test in Sydney.
There are three debutants in the starting lineup, with Scott Spedding, who only joined the squad on Saturday for the injured Brice Dulin, parachuted straight into the starting lineup at full-back and Saint-André says he has no concerns about starting the South African-born player.
“I expect him to be bright and counter-attack as he has since he joined us,” said Saint-André.
“He’s fitted straight into the team, he gets involved, talks, communicates. He’s a very good counter-attacker, has a good boot and a lot of charisma. Now he needs to play his part and help the team.”
Spedding will be joined on debut by Racing Métro pair Teddy Thomas and Alexandre Dumoulin, who start on the wing and in the centres respectively.
More important might be the combination of Sébastien Tillous-Borde and Camille Lopez in the half-backs. While it will be the 13th pairing Saint-André has started in just two years in charge, there is hope that Lopez, in particular, might be able to establish himself as a long-term option.
A flying start to the season has seen him establish himself as first choice at Clermont, and as it stands he has the best goal-kicking percentage of any kicker in Europe. After winning a couple of caps in 2013 in New Zealand before tearing his ACL last season, it’s great to see Lopez back.
Up front France are much more conservative, with experienced figures such as skipper Thierry Dusautoir, Pascal Papé and Nicolas Mas all starting. Against a Fiji side which will inevitably be stronger in the backline than up front, Saint-André will demand that his players win the set-piece battle to dominate possession and territory.
That’s because against them will be as dangerous a backline as there is in the international game, which only gets scarier when you consider the likes of Napolioni Nalaga, Waisea Nayacalevu and Benito Masilevu aren’t even in the matchday squad.
As it is, there will be a lot of pressure on half-backs Niko Matawalu and Jonetani Ralulu to feed a backline that features most notably Alipate Ratini and Metuisela Talebula, arguably the two biggest threats in the Top 14.
The back row of Masi Matadigo, Akapusi Qera and Dominiko Waqaniburotu is also very experienced and could cause damage, but the game may come down to whether the Fijian front five can come close to parity with their hosts.
In June Fiji beat Italy and hammered Tonga, as well as losing narrowly to Samoa, so this is far from an easy opener for the French. With the group of death awaiting them at the World Cup next year, this could be a chance for Fiji to lay down a marker.
Players to watch:
For France: There are so many to choose from but we’ve got to go with Camille Lopez whose return to the French team has been thoroughly-deserved. An injury-disrupted season with Perpignan ended with the Catalan side getting relegated, but as a result Lopez made his way to Clermont where he has been outstanding so far this season. A threat with ball in hand, blessed with great vision and a much-improved kicker, Saturday will give him the chance to show exactly what he can do. He’s also improved his defence since his last caps in 2013 where he struggled with the power of Ma’a Nonu, and he will be tested in that department against the pace of the Fijian backline. While Lopez generally prefers to keep the ball in hand, this will also be a Test where he needs to show off his tactical kicking game, keeping the Fijians pinned back, without giving their dangerous back three any loose ball.
For Fiji: The Fijian backline is packed with talent, but that will mean nothing if they have no ball to play with. Key to winning the possession battle will be skipper Akapusi Qera. Long-known to Gloucester fans, the openside was outstanding last year for Toulouse and has looked good on the rare occasions he’s appeared for Montpellier this year. As part of a powerful back row, he will be tasked with slowing down French ball and more importantly, ensuring quick ball for his own side, and if he manages that, the space will open up out wide. Vastly-experienced, but still only 30 years old, Qera will also pop up in support as and when his backs spot gaps, so expect him to be very visible around the park. He’s also one of just two remaining starters on either side from the last time these teams met back in 2010, Guilhem Guirado being the other.
Head-to-head: Full-backs don’t tend to really go head-to-head on the field, but in Scott Spedding and Metuisela Talebula, we’ll see quite a contrast in styles. While both love to counter-attack, Spedding offers a more physical presence, and knows this is a great chance to establish himself with Brice Dulin injured and Maxime Médard not fully fit either.
On the other side of the pitch will be Talebula, generally used on the wing by Bordeaux, but just as dangerous from full-back. While Alipate Ratini might be a touch quicker, as an all-round attacking threat, Talebula is probably the best of the lot in France. Les Bleus were terrible in their kick-chase a year ago in November against the Springboks, if the same happens here they will be in big trouble.
2010: France won 34-12 in Nantes
2003: France won 61-18 in Brisbane
2001: France won 77-10 in Saint-Etienne
1999: France won 28-19 in Toulouse
1998: France won 34-9 in Suva
1991: France won 33-9 in Grenoble
1987: France won 31-16 in Auckland
1964: France won 21-3 in Colombes
Prediction: This could be an exciting game with a very dangerous Fijian backline and a refreshed French lineup. While France have been struggling badly under Philippe Saint-André, they should dominate up front and with a strong bench might power in the final quarter. France to win by twelve points.
France: 15 Scott Spedding, 14 Yoann Huget, 13 Alexandre Dumoulin, 12 Wesley Fofana, 11 Teddy Thomas, 10 Camille Lopez, 9 Sébastien Tillous-Borde, 8 Damien Chouly, 7 Bernard Le Roux, 6 Thierry Dusautoir (c), 5 Yoann Maestri, 4 Pascal Papé, 3 Nicolas Mas, 2 Guilhem Guirado, 1 Alexandre Menini
Replacements from: Xavier Chiocci, Benjamin Kayser, Uini Atonio, Alexandre Flanquart, Sébastien Vahaamahina, Charles Ollivon, Rory Kockott, Rémi Talès, Maxime Mermoz, Mathieu Bastareaud
Fiji: 15 Metuisela Talebula, 14 Watisoni Votu, 13 Asaeli Tikoirotuma, 12 Levani Botia, 11 Alipate Ratini, 10 Jonetani Ralulu, 9 Nikola Matawalu, 8 Masi Matadigo, 7 Akapusi Qera (c), 6 Dominiko Waqaniburotu, 5 Api Ratuniyarawa, 4 Leone Nakarawa, 3 Manasa Saulo, 2 Sunia Koto, 1 Campese Ma’afu
Replacements: 16 Viliame Veikoso, 17 Jerry Yanuyanutawa, 18 Isei Colati, 19 Nemia Soqeta, 20 Malakai Ravulo, 21 Henry Seniloli, 22 Nemani Nadolo, 23 Timoci Nagusa
Date: Saturday, November 8
Venue: Stade Vélodrome, Marseille
Kickoff: 17:45 local 1(6:45 GMT)
Referee: Glen Jackson (New Zealand)
Assistant Referees: Mike Fraser (New Zealand), Federico Anselmi (Argentina)
TMO: Stefano Pennè (Italy)
- Planet Rugby