France’s head coach Fabien Galthié made wholesale changes to his side for the hosts’ second Rugby World Cup game against Uruguay on Thursday, though he cautioned against taking the South American squad lightly.
Les Bleus opened the tournament with a rip-roaring victory over three-time winners New Zealand last week, and are now favourites to secure a quarter-final berth by topping Pool A.
Uruguay, who start their World Cup campaign in Lille this week, finished bottom of their pool in 2019 but Galthié saw positives in their performances in Japan.
“They beat Fiji. Against Australia it was a respectable score,” Galthié told reporters this week, referring to Uruguay’s historic victory over the Pacific islanders four years ago.
Los Teros, as Uruguay are known, scored a try in all four pool games in Japan. They have 11 survivors from 2019 in the starting 15 for their opening match on Thursday.
“They have big hearts,” Galthié added. “They are a team with a lot of energy and aggression.”
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The French coach has kept just three players from the All Blacks victory having chosen to rest the likes of No.8 Gregory Alldritt, centre Gael Fickou, flanker Charles Ollivon as well as captain and scrum-half Antoine Dupont.
The former Test scrum-half is also without hooker Julien Marchand due to a hamstring issue suffered in last week’s win, a result that lifted expectations of a first Webb Ellis trophy success even further among the home support.
In skipper Dupont’s place is his former room-mate and No.8 Anthony Jelonch, who has made a miraculous comeback since rupturing an anterior cruciate ligament in February.
“I worked really hard to give myself the chance to be back,” Jelonch said. “To be back for this World Cup as captain is a huge moment of pride for me.”
President in the stands
On the right wing for Galthié’s side will be Bordeaux-Begles’ Louis Bielle-Biarrey, who will make just his fourth Test appearance, after his debut in August.
The 20-year-old will also become his country’s youngest player at a World Cup, beating a record held by injured star Romain Ntamack.
“It doesn’t mean much to me, I’m happy but it’s not that which will help us be world champions,” Bielle-Biarrey quipped. “Things have gone really quickly for me. I want to enjoy it.”
Les Bleus’ opponents on Thursday will have a French touch to their outfit, with five of their squad based at a club in the tournament’s home country.
They include Castres scrumhalf Santiago Arata, who has recovered from a broken hand in May to start his first test since November 2021.
Additionally, Uruguay president Luis Lacalle Pou will be in the stands watching the match.
“It matters, we play to represent a lot of people. The fact that he’s there is another reason for that,” Vannes winger Nicolas Freitas said. “It’s good to know that we represent the best of our country.”
The game takes place at Lille’s 50,000-capacity Stade Pierre-Mauroy, the home of the town’s football club, who won the last of their four French titles in 2021.
Despite the fixture being played nearer to the Belgian border than to a top-tier professional rugby outfit, tickets for the match have been sold out for months.
“It’s a football region, which is what you think when you come from the south-west,” said France’s Jelonch. “We’re very happy to see all the rugby fans here and we’ll try and give them the best spectacle possible.”
(FRANCE 24 with AFP)