European Championship Preview: France

On paper, France probably look the strongest squad in this year’s European Championship. The French domestic competition, the Elite League, from which many of this squad come, is a hard and physically demanding league which produces some tough professionals.

Les Bleus are lacking some of their Catalan Dragons stars, though, with strong-running centre Vincent Duport and star full-back Morgan Escare among the notable absentees.

Escare in particular is a big miss, with many observers thinking that he was Super League’s outstanding full-back in 2014. Sadly, he will not be playing in the tournament due to injury.

“He’s not fit, and that’s a blow for us,” France coach Richard Agar told Love Rugby League.

“He’s only got four Test caps to his name, and we were very keen for him to take part in this.

“But I think everybody saw in the last game at St Helens, that he was beat up.

“He’s got possibly an operation on his elbow to come, and everyone saw in that game against St Helens that he sustained a hip injury as well.

“That’s unfortunate for us, as I think he’s been the best French player arguably in the game last season.

“He’ll be a loss, as he was great for us last year, but we’ll get on with it.”

While Agar admits that Escare leaves a large hole to fill, one player who might be able to compensate somewhat for his absence is the aggressive hooker Eloi Pelissier, a dynamic presence out of dummy half for Catalan Dragons in 2014.

Eloi Pelissier is one player who I think France has been really good for,” said Agar.

“He was probably pigeon-holed as a 15 to 20 minute a week player, and last year in the World Cup he came in and played 79 minutes against England in the quarter-final.

“That changed his mindset, and maybe the guys who were coaching him at club level saw that, and when Ian Henderson got injured this year, he confidently pulled off more minutes for the Dragons.”

Pelissier also has some back-up from the bench, in the form of Lezignan’s John Boudebza, who this week revealed that he has signed a one-year deal with Hull KR, although he is not in the 20-man squad for the first game with Ireland in Dublin on Saturday.

France then play Wales in Albi on October 25, before travelling to the Scottish Borders to play Scotland in Galashiels. That game could be the decider for this tournament, and how well les Bleus adapt to the unfamiliar surroundings of rural Scotland could be key.

Coach Profile:

Now with Warrington, Richard Agar is an experienced coach who could help inspire France to victory in this tournament. He is even becoming fluent in French, following lessons from a schoolteacher.

“I won’t deliver reviews and previews in French,” he said.

“But certainly when we get together socially over dinner or on other occasions, then we try our best to communicate. The boys put us right, but we getting by.

“All our calls are in French, and I can get by a little bit doing that.”

If he can properly overcome those language difficulties and instil some cohesion and collective spirit in this French squad they will be dangerous. Maintaining discipline can sometimes be tricky with French sides, though, and one senses that keeping players fully focused on their jobs on the pitch may well be his biggest test. If he manages that, victory, and a return to Four Nations football in 2016, could be the prize.

Player to Watch:

Theo Fages, the Salford Red Devils halfback, is turning into one of Super League’s top pivots. His stats show that he made 30 attacking kicks, 17 clean breaks and 17 offloads for his club this season.

He also, perhaps significantly, made 400 tackles, which shows that he is no pushover in defence either. With Eloi Pelissier at hooker and Fages in the halves, France will certainly pose a threat in attack.

“From where we had him 12 months ago, as a guy who had played some first grade, to having him now on the back of a really solid season, is credit to the guys who have been working with him at Salford,” said Agar.

“He’s someone who’s come back 12 months down the line as someone who is a far more mature, game smart, football-wise, confident player.

“His role within our team this year, as someone who was on the periphery and got some game time last year, to be a very focal point of what we’re trying to do this time.

“Importantly as well, he’s comfortable with that.”

Love Rugby League Prediction:

Although strong looking and with some fine players in key positions, the World Cup left some thorny questions about cohesion and team spirit unanswered. French players can go missing in big games, and lose their heads when things go against them. If they can master these demons and play as a real team, they should win the tournament. The game with Scotland will be key, and, as it stands, the Scots, with a fine team spirit and the competition’s best player in Danny Brough, should just edge out this French team, leaving les Bleus with second prize.

FRANCE SQUAD:

Clement Soubeyras (AS Carcassonne), Jason Baitieri, Julian Bousquet, Damien Cardace, Benjamin Garcia, Antony Maria, Eloi Pelissier (Dragons Catalans), Kevin Larroyer (Hull KR), John Boudebza, Anthony Carrere, Jamal Fakir (FC Lezignan XIII), Remy Marginet, Frederic Vaccari (Palau), Theo Fages (Salford), Jean-Philippe Baile, William Barthau, Thibaud Margalet, Matthias Pala, Mikhael Simon (St-Estève XIII Catalan), Benjamin Jullien (SO Avignon XIII), Aurelien Decarnin (Villeneuve-sur-Lot XIII), Aaron Wood, Tony Maurel (both Toulouse)

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