Jacques Brunel has insisted he has dropped Morgan Parra and Camille Lopez on merit and not insubordination after selecting teen star Romain Ntamack at fly-half for France.
Toulouse’s 19-year-old playmaker Ntamack will make his first Test start in the number 10 shirt when France host Scotland in Saturday’s Six Nations clash in Paris, with Antoine Dupont slotting in at scrum-half.
Parra and Lopez criticised France’s management in the wake of their shambolic 44-8 loss to England at Twickenham on Sunday, February 10.
Embattled head coach Brunel announced France’s team two days early on Tuesday in a bid to wrestle back control of Les Bleus’ listing ship – but was immediately on the defensive over omitting Parra and Lopez.
When asked if Parra and Lopez had been left out of France’s 23 to face Scotland in punishment for their criticism, Brunel replied: “I’m telling you it’s not the case; ask them, ask their team-mates.
“Given our performance (against England) we needed to change things, it’s a sporting choice.”
Toulouse duo Dupont and Ntamack, son of former French wing Emile, have just 13 caps between them, as opposed to the combined 92 of Parra and Lopez.
Yoann Huget returns to the wing after his disastrous outing at full-back against England, with Gael Fickou also back in the centres after struggling on the wing in that Twickenham debacle.
FRANCE TEAM: T Ramos (Toulouse), D Penaud (Clermont), M Bastareaud (Toulon), G Fickou (Stade Francais), Y Huget, R Ntamack, A Dupont (all Toulouse), J Poirot (Bordeaux), G Guirado (Toulon, capt), D Bamba (Brive), S Vahaamahina (Clermont), F Lambey (Lyon), W Lauret (Racing 92), A Iturria (Clermont), L Picamoles (Montpellier). Replacements: C Chat (Racing 92), E Falgoux (Clermont), D Aldegheri (Toulouse), P Willemse (Toulouse), G Alldritt (La Rochelle), J Serin (Bordeaux), A Belleau (Toulon), M Medard (Toulouse).
Paul Stridgeon was born in Wigan and represented England at the Commonwealth Games – but he wants to see the Red Rose wilt next Saturday.
As Wales’ national physical performance manager, former freestyle wrestler Stridgeon plays a critical role among head coach Warren Gatland’s support team.
He has previously worked with England – a six-year stint – the British & Irish Lions, Toulon and Wasps, and is rated among the best operators in his field.
And if Wales stay on course for a Six Nations Grand Slam by beating title favourites England in Cardiff next weekend, then Stridgeon will have played a key part.
“People always ask me and Shaun (Edwards, Wales assistant coach) that question – ‘what’s it like when you play England? Who do you want to win?'” Stridgeon said.
REPORTER: Neil, how did it feel to win that famous game in Wembley in '99?— Welsh Rugby Union 🏉 (@WelshRugbyUnion) 14 February 2019
KATRINA AND THE WAVES: We'll answer that one... pic.twitter.com/yn18jiF1NE
“It is like, ‘are you having a laugh?’ We work for Wales. We want to win more than the Welsh boys, if that’s possible.
“On the coach on the way back (after beating England in the 2015 World Cup) I am there with my top off, and my suit trousers on, dancing.
“Me and Shaun were happier than anyone to have beaten England – because it’s your old team.”
Stridgeon and Edwards went to the same school, and they will be instrumental figures for Wales through the Six Nations, into summer preparations and then the World Cup in Japan.
“This is the best squad I’ve worked with, definitely,” Stridgeon added. “It’s the best job I’ve had.
“Wasps was a great job because we were successful and won a trophy every year, but for me working with Wales is not like being at work.
“I am telling boys to run around and do things, and they do it all. They smile and shake your hand at the end and we have a bit of banter as well.
“There are no egos in the squad whatsoever, and they are all hard-working. You tell them what they have to do, and they do it to the letter.”
Driving fitness levels is Stridgeon’s forte, and he has no doubt which way the Wales players are heading in that department.
“You can’t be the best if you are not the fittest,” he said. “The coaches allow us a lot of time to do what we want and need to do.
“Warren is not all about rugby. He is the sort of coach who if the boys are tired, he will cancel a rugby session and let us do some weights with them. That’s how much emphasis he puts and places on strength and conditioning performance.
“When you’ve got the coaches and not only the fitness staff banging the fitness drum, it’s great. They are looking at the GPS data and the training times, and that’s perfect for us.
“All we have to do is rev the boys up, push them hard, and away they go. If you combine that with the willingness of the boys to work hard, then it’s just great.”
Asked if Wales’ current squad is the fittest he has worked with, Stridgeon added: “I think it will be by the time we come to the World Cup. It definitely has the potential to be that.
“We just need time to be together. There are things we are not 100 per cent in control of because the players go back to their regions and the English clubs.
“But when we get a big amount of time together and work hard, I feel we will be in great shape by the time the World Cup starts.”
England could unleash giant wing Joe Cokanasiga upon Wales after Chris Ashton was ruled out of Saturday’s Six Nations title collision with Wales by a calf injury.
Ashton incurred the damage during the squad’s three-day camp in London and will receive treatment at his club Sale, but he is expected to recover in time for the penultimate round against Italy.
The 31-year-old acted as a replacement against Ireland but was promoted to the starting XV against France and completed 51 minutes until he was replaced by Jack Nowell.
Wing has become a position of strength for England and they will be able to absorb the loss of Ashton without too much fuss, even allowing for his formidable strike rate of 20 tries in 44 Tests.
Nowell, who dropped to the bench for France’ visit to Twickenham despite excelling in Dublin, is likely to start in the number 14 jersey to place Cokanasiga on course to win his third cap as a replacement.
Cokanasiga is present in the 33-man training squad selected for Wales having continued his comeback from knee ligament damage with a try-scoring performance in Bath’s victory over Newcastle on Saturday.
It was the Fijian-born 21-year-old’s first outing for over two months and having proved his fitness he is contention for the Principality Stadium clash, most likely in the role of impact substitute.
“I was blowing a bit towards the end but I’m confident in the knee now,” Cokanasiga said after Newcastle had been dispatched.
“Eddie (Jones) just spoke to me about getting some game time and being available for selection for Wales.
“Everything happened so quickly for me in the autumn and I haven’t had any time to think about it.
“I’ve been working hard on my rehab and hopefully I will get that shot against Wales.”
Also present in the training squad is veteran Mike Brown and Gloucester’s Ollie Thorley, although the uncapped rookie is a fringe contender.
The remote prospect of Maro Itoje facing the only other unbeaten side in the 2019 Six Nations has vanished after the Saracens lock was excluded from the 33.
Itoje was struck down by a knee injury against Ireland and while Jones floated the possibility of him securing a bench spot against Wales, he will continue receiving treatment with a view to facing Italy.
Definitely present in Cardiff will be Elliot Daly, whose attacking instincts at full-back have been influential in England’s successful start to the Six Nations.
Daly ran in the decisive try that sealed a dramatic late win in the same venue two years ago after a poor clearance provided the launchpad for a stunning counter that broke Welsh hearts.
The passing from George Ford and Owen Farrell was textbook, enabling Daly to run on to the ball at speed and touch down in the left corner.
“I watched it about a million times afterwards, but I haven’t watched it for a few years,” Daly said.
When asked if it was his greatest moment in rugby, Daly replied: “I’d say so, so far.
“Just because of the timing of the game and where we were at the time. It is definitely up there, in the top one or two.
“I just tried to get back as quickly as possible from the kick and I realised Fordy was on his bike straight away, and I could see Faz there as well.
“So I knew a couple of passes were on the cards, and it was just nice that two pretty world-class passes put it in front of me and I didn’t have to break stride and could run on to it.”