OITA, Japan (Reuters) - Key French backs Antoine Dupont and Damian Penaud have been passed fit to play in their World Cup quarter-final against Wales, a huge boost for coach Jacques Brunel that allowed him to name a full-strength side on Friday.
Scrumhalf Dupont had a back problem while winger Penaud had an abdominal strain but both men, who have been in sharp form in Japan and in the warm-up games, had recovered enough to play on Sunday with Brunel saying they were both “100 percent.”
Other than Bernard Le Roux, who can also cover the back row, starting instead of Arthur Iturria at lock, Brunel has returned to the team that started their opening game against Argentina.
Jefferson Poirot, Guilhem Guirado and Rabah Slimani start together in the front row for the 16th time, a record for France in the professional era.
But there was no place in the 23 for exciting winger Alivereti Raka, a tryscorer against the United States and Tonga, with Vincent Rattez, who won the last of his two caps in 2017 and was drafted in to the World Cup squad to replace the injured Thomas Ramos, getting a place on the bench due to his versatility across the back three.
With Wales having also named a full-strength side earlier, it should be a high-octane encounter on Sunday, with either South Africa or Japan awaiting in the semi-finals.
Mindful of how his team started strongly in all three pool games but were then pegged back by Argentina, the United States and Tonga, Brunel stressed the importance of maintaining the intensity for 80 minutes on Sunday.
“We don’t want to go back to France, but if we are to stay here we will need to play a full game,” he said.
“We’re playing one of the top three teams in the world, it’s a hell of a challenge, but, if we play with consistency, we have a chance.”
Brunel also said he was surprised that Wales flyhalf Dan Biggar had been cleared to play despite suffering two head knocks in the pool games. Under French Federation (FFR) rules he would have been sidelined, he added.
“Everyone takes their responsibilities,” he said. “If we were in the Top 14, two concussions means three weeks out. With the FFR protocol he would not be allowed to play.”
France have won only one of the teams’ last eight meetings since beating Wales in the semi-finals of the 2011 tournament. Fullback Maxime Medard is the only survivor from that match in New Zealand.
Brunel, though, said there was no inferiority complex despite the dire run of results, pointing out that many of the defeats had been in very tight games.
“I’ve never thought the team doubted their ability to beat the Welsh,” he said. “They have a strong defence and good systems. They kept Australia in their own 22 in the early part of their pool game and I expect they’ll try to do the same with us.
“We’re the underdogs, but that doesn’t stop us fully believing in our chances.”
France team: 15-Maxime Medard, 14-Damian Penaud, 13-Virimi Vakatawa, 12-Gael Fickou, 11-Yoann Huget, 10-Romain Ntamack, 9-Antoine Dupont, 8-Gregory Alldritt, 7-Charles Ollivon, 6-Wenceslas Lauret, 5-Sebastien Vahaamahina, 4-Bernard Le Roux, 3-Rabah Slimani, 2-Guilhem Guirado (captain), 1-Jefferson Poirot
Replacements: 16-Camille Chat, 17-Cyril Baille, 18-Emerick Setiano, 19-Paul Gabrillagues, 20-Louis Picamoles, 21-Baptiste Serin, 22-Camille Lopez, 23-Vincent Rattez.
Compiled by Nick Mulvenney, editing by Peter Rutherford