By Ian Ransom
FUKUOKA (Reuters) – The threat of a typhoon may be fading over Fukuoka but the winds of change continue to blow through France at the World Cup as they look to build momentum against the United States in their second Pool C encounter on Wednesday.
The youthful starting side that survived a huge fightback by Argentina last week has all but been swept away by Jacques Brunel, with the 65-year-old coach opting for greybeards over rookies in key positions against the Eagles.
With a quick turnaround between the U.S. and their third match against Tonga, Brunel said the 12 changes to his starting 15 were a sacrifice to keep the squad fresh rather than evidence of a lack of respect for the 13th-ranked Americans.
“You can’t say we didn’t take the opposition into account,” Brunel told reporters in Kumamoto on Monday. “We’re wary of this American side because of the physical qualities they’re developing.
“The English did a good job of dominating them. We hope to do the same.”
With regular captain Guilhem Guirado benched, number eight Louis Picamoles will lead the team for the first time in his 81st test.
But it will be the men immediately behind Picamoles that may provoke the most heated Gallic debate.
Flyhalf Romain Ntamack has been demoted while scrumhalf Antoine Dupont has been dropped altogether after the youthful pair started against the Pumas and helped drive France to a 20-3 halftime lead.
Camille Lopez, who booted the winning drop goal against Argentina, will start at 10, with Maxime Machenaud earning his first start at scrumhalf since March.
Brunel’s musical chairs approach to the halves has long irked French fans and his decision to promote Machenaud over regular backup Baptiste Serin raised eyebrows.
“This does not question anything about Baptiste Serin. It is hoped that Baptiste, later, will also have a chance,” Brunel said.
Notwithstanding the U.S. and Tonga clashes, the win over Argentina has set Les Bleus up for what could be a decisive battle for top spot in the pool against Eddie Jones’s England in Yokohama on Oct. 12.
Brunel waved away the idea his selections offered clues of what fans might see in “Le Crunch”.
“We did not think about the composition against England,” he said flatly.
Typhoon Mitag had offered the drastic prospect of the abandonment of the Fukuoka match, which would have meant France and the U.S. splitting four points, completely changing the complexion of the pool.
With a better forecast, Gary Gold’s Eagles may struggle to come away with any points in the wake of last week’s tempestuous 45-7 loss to England which left them with a heavy injury count.
Since beating France for back-to-back gold medals in 1920-24, when 15-a-side rugby was on the Olympic program, the U.S. have lost all six matches against Les Bleus, their last a 39-31 home defeat in Hartford in 2004.
The U.S. can ill afford a repeat of the poor tackling that allowed England to dictate terms, South African defense coach Jaque Fourie warned.
“We need to mentally and physically be ready for that challenge,” said the World Cup-winning Springbok. “I don’t think we can get any worse.”
(Reporting by Ian Ransom; Editing by Sudipto Ganguly)