Teddy Thomas became only the second Frenchman ever to score a hat-trick on debut as France cruised past Fiji, 40-15 in Marseille.
The Racing winger had his first try inside 60 seconds, and added two more after the break, in a morale-boosting win for Philippe Saint-André’s charges.
He wasn’t the only debutant to impress, with Scott Spedding outstanding at full-back, and Alexandre Dumoulin also powerful in the centre.
In addition to those three new caps in the starting lineup, Uini Atonio, Xavier Chiocci, Charles Ollivon and Rory Kockott also made their Test bows off the break, and despite a scare early in the second half, France were impressive.
Traditionally weak in the set-piece, Fiji actually coped quite well at scrum-time, and disrupted the French lineout, but they kicked away too much possession in the first half before falling apart in the last half-hour.
It was the perfect start for Les Bleus and debutant Thomas in particular. An early turnover gave France possession in the Fijian 22, and after a couple of charges from the forwards, Camille Lopez dropped a cross-kick perfectly into Thomas’ hands on the left.
The score was confirmed after consultation with the TMO, and it was certainly touch or go whether Thomas went early, but with no clear offside, he was given the benefit of the doubt.
The Racing winger is the 14th player to have been used by Saint-André since taking charge in 2012, but he looked comfortable from the off, and as a try-scoring threat he’s unrivalled in France.
France looked like they might run away with it at that point, adding another penalty soon after through Lopez but they made heavy weather of the remainder of the half.
Lopez added two more penalties, missing one from in front, but the French were misfiring in the lineout and couldn’t really cut loose, taking a 14-0 lead into half-time.
Nemani Nadolo had been struggling with an injury in the build-up, but he came on at half-time and made an instant impact as he slotted in at fly-half. First of all he added a penalty from the touchline before a try from Alipate Ratini had the French looking rattled.
It came as Thomas made a poor attempt to tackle Leone Nakarawa, and he then played the one-two to send the prolific Ratini over. Nadolo missed the conversion but at 14-8, Fiji were right back in it.
France needed a response, and it came on their next incursion into Fijian territory. A few attacks on the right from the forwards made some ground without ever threatening to turn into points, but when the ball came back left, Ratini sprinted out of the line, and Spedding spotted him, stepped out of trouble before feeding Thomas.
The youngster dived over for his second try and France were back in control, Lopez’s touchline conversion making it 21-8.
Two minutes later the game was ended as a contest, Spedding again at the heart of it as he cut inside two men on halfway before feeding Thomas outside him and the winger had enough gas to race over for his hat-trick.
Lopez’s conversion came back off the post but it mattered little, France were dominant. They almost added another try through Uini Atonio, who made a big impact after coming on.
He knocked on just as he approached the Fijian line in a powerful French maul, but with 15 minutes left Papé burrowed over after another strong maul. Lopez again converted before being replaced, and Saint-André took the opportunity to bring on Rory Kockott, Charles Ollivon and Xavier Chiocci for their debuts as well.
The last French try was all too easy, Rémi Talès, who had replaced Lopez, deftly chipping over the top for Fofana to run in his tenth Test try, and Kockott scored his first international points with the conversion.
Les Bleus kept attacking in search of a sixth try, but it was Fiji who had the final word as they finally counter-attacked with success, Timoci Nagusa going over from 80 metres out after a turnover in the Fijian 22.
Despite that late score, this was a comfortable victory for France, and it will have restored some of the confidence that has been lost over the last few months.
However this Fiji team, for all their pace and trickery out wide, offered very little resistance in the nitty-gritty of the breakdown. Australia next week in Paris will be another test entirely, and France will need to step it up a notch.
If they do, there is certainly the potential to pick up a result, but on current form they still go in very much as underdogs.
Man of the Match: It can’t be often that someone scores a hat-trick and doesn’t get man of the match, but as well as Teddy Thomas played, we’re going to give the nod to Scott Spedding. He racked up 199 metres with ball in hand and was at the heart of the two tries that turned the game France’s way. Brice Dulin is an incredible player but even he will have to play out of skin to get back into the team.
Moment of the Match: Ten minutes into the second half France were on the rack, having conceded eight points and barely touched the ball since the break. They then managed to get their hands on the ball and when Spedding beat Ratini sprinting out of the line, the overlap was created. He found Thomas for his second try, and from there France were back in control.
Villain of the Match: No nasty stuff to report.
Tries: Thomas 3, Papé, Fofana
Cons: Lopez 2, Kockott
Pens: Lopez 3
Tries: Ratini, Nagusa
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
Venue: Stade Vélodrome, Marseille
Referee: Glen Jackson (New Zealand)
Assistant Referees: Mike Fraser (New Zealand), Federico Anselmi (Argentina)
TMO: Stefano Pennè (Italy)
- Planet Rugby