France will be forced to field a second-string XV in the final of the Autumn Nations Cup after head coach Fabien Galthie confirmed he will not recall the bulk of the side that defeated England earlier this year.
England booked their place in the final with a 24-13 victory over Wales on Saturday in a match that was followed by France’s 36-5 win over Italy, confirming that next Sunday’s finale at Twickenham will feature the top two from this year’s Six Nations.
The clash would also have the appetising strand of being a rematch of England’s only defeat this calendar year, having lost on their Six Nations-opening trip to Paris back in February when Les Bleus really announced their return to the big stage by beating the World Cup finalists.
But a tournament that has failed to capture the imagination is now set to end in farce, with France without a single player from the squad that beat England 10 months ago. A dispute between the French Rugby Federation (FFR) and the Top 14 clubs (LNR) ended with an agreement that no player would feature more than three times this autumn, and with Galthie selecting his strongest line-up for the warm-up Test against Wales, the Six Nations finale with Ireland and last weekend’s win over Scotland, he will be without his best players for the final.
It means the likes of captain Charles Ollivon, scrum-half Antoine Dupont and centre Virimi Vakatawa will all be unavailable for the trip to London, with the second-string side that defeated Italy set to be retained apart from scrum-half Baptiste Serin and centre Teddy Thomas, though Romain Ntamack, the fly-half who helped to orchestrate that victory over England, could be in with a chance of returning from injury to feature.
“We will play against a nation that has lost only one game against us this season,” said Galthie. “Before, it was the World Cup final against South Africa. It is a nation which loses little, which will play with its best team, it is undoubtedly the best team in the world today.
“Will I get my best players back for England? No. At international level, it is necessary to switch completely. You cannot ask the players to come out, in, out, in. It's too difficult for a player.
“We will have almost the same group for the last match, except Baptiste Serin and Teddy Thomas who now have played three game.”
England were unaware of the development until the hours after their victory at Llanelli’s Parc y Scarlets, where they registered a seventh consecutive victory since their Stade de France defeat.
“It wasn't something I was aware of until yesterday after the result came in,” said Ben Youngs. “I think it's something they're trying to sort out. We'll prepare as best we can.”
But Youngs believes that regardless of the changes, the presence of former Wales defence coach Shaun Edwards will ensure that every player included lives up to the standard now expected in the French camp.
“Whichever French team takes the field will be ferocious,” the scrum-half added. “With Shaun Edwards as defence coach there will be no lack of physicality or organisation. It doesn't really matter as such, they are a squad with a huge amount of talent. You only have to look at Serin, who had his most minutes for a long time in a French shirt. They have some huge quality so we'll prepare as best we can to make sure we get our best performance we can.
“We really respect France and know what they're capable of. They're probably the most improved team over the last 12 months. We fully respect what's coming. We got done the last time we played them so they'll be confident.”
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