France coach recalls Vahaamahina for Wales Six Nations clash

Nicolas KIENAST
France coach Guy Noves attends training on the eve of the 2017 Six Nations match against Italy in Rome

France coach Guy Noves refused to be dragged into the Racing 92-Stade Francais merger row Thursday as he brought Sebastien Vahaamahina back into the second row in one change for Les Bleus' final Six Nations match this season, against Wales on Saturday.

The Top 14 was thrown into disarray this week after the presidents of the two Paris-based Top 14 clubs announced a merger, which has to be ratified by the LNR, the body governing professional rugby in France.

Stade Francais players promptly voted overwhelmingly for strike action and will not train for or play in Saturday's Top 14 clash against Castres.

When asked what effect the bombshell news had had on France squad players Camille Chat, Eddy Ben Arous, Bernard Le Roux (Racing 92), Rabah Slimani, Jonathan Danty and Djibril Camara (Stade Francais), Noves replied that he didn't want to "reply to this question".

"I've obviously spoken to my coaching staff about it because we talk about everything that's going on, but honestly, I don't want to add pollution to this game (against Wales)," the former long-time Toulouse coach said.

After the merger proposal was unveiled on Monday, Camara and Danty left the France team's training base south of Paris without asking Noves' permission to meet up with Stade teammates.

Neither player made Noves' squad for the Wales game. South African-born Racing flanker Le Roux also misses the cut, while Slimani starts at tighthead prop and fellow front-rowers Chat and Ben Arous are named on the bench.

- Noves plumps for consistency -

Vahaamahina missed Les Bleus' previous outing, a 40-18 victory over Italy in Rome last weekend, with a back injury.

His return sees Julien Le Devedec drop to the bench in place of Paul Jedrasiak, with backrower Damien Chouly and hooker Chat also handed spots among the replacements at the expense of Le Roux and the injured Christopher Tolofua respectively.

Vahaamahina will be partnered by Yoann Maestri in the boilerhouse, with Guilhem Guirado skippering the side from hooker alongside Slimani and Cyril Baille.

Fabien Sanconnie wins his second cap at blindside, Kevin Gourdon lining up on the open and Louis Picamoles at No 8.

Baptiste Serin and Camille Lopez start their fifth straight game together at half-back -- the first time that has happened for France since 2010, Francois Trinh-Duc offering an option from the bench.

Brice Dulin keeps his place at full-back at the expense of South African-born Scott Spedding, Fijian wingers Noa Nakaitaci and Virimi Vakatawa completing the back three, while Remi Lamerat and Gael Fickou are named in midfield.

"We cannot ask to work consistently and end up chopping and changing at any moment," said Noves of his settled team.

"It's not a reward to finish the Six Nations with the same team but a duty.

"The players who have given their best in recent weeks, not talking of those injured and returning players, very much deserve to represent France."

Continuity was key, Noves said, adding: "We feel that, watching the players go about their daily work in training, certain situations are increasingly better understood."

Ten players will have started the five matches, something not lost on fly-half Lopez.

"To be involved with the entire tournament, working together every day, is obviously important," the Clermont player said.

"It's by playing back-to-back matches at this level that we'll make better progress. We'll gain experience and continue to grow."

France currently sit one place ahead of Wales on points difference, in third, having lost to England (19-16) and Ireland (19-9), sandwiched around a victory over Scotland (22-16) before their romp over the Italians last weekend.

Wales have also racked up two wins, over Italy (33-7) and Ireland (22-9), and two defeats, by England (21-16) and Scotland (29-13).

France team (15-1) for Six Nations international against Wales at the Stade de France on Saturday (kick-off 1445 GMT):

Brice Dulin; Noa Nakaitaci, Remi Lamerat, Gael Fickou, Virimi Vakatawa; Camille Lopez, Baptiste Serin; Louis Picamoles, Kevin Gourdon, Fabien Sanconnie; Yoann Maestri, Sebastien Vahaamahina; Rabah Slimani, Guilhem Guirado (capt), Cyril Baille

Replacements: Christopher Tolofua, Uini Atonio, Eddy Ben Arous, Julien Le Devedec, Damien Chouly, Antoine Dupont, Francois Trinh-Duc, Yoann Huget

Coach: Guy Noves (FRA)