Paying a visit to France's multi-million-pound national rugby centre at Marcoussis, a few miles south of Paris, rids you of any notion that Les Bleus treat the sport frivolously, yet the way they have used the Six Nations' Championship as an extended national trial defies credibility.
When it was pointed out to the winger Aurélien Rougerie that he was the most capped player in today's starting line-up against the Italians he shrugged, as if to say: "Well, I haven't got much to beat."
A quick glance at the back three confirms the suggestion. The 6ft 4in Rougerie will play his 55th Test alongside Julien Malzieu and Anthony Floch, who have one cap each. Malzieu made his debut in the Championship opener against Scotland and scored a try; Floch was a replacement (for Rougerie) in the 24-13 defeat by England a fortnight ago. The trio are club-mates who know each other very well in the yellow jersey of Clermont Auvergne, but at international level two of them are just learning.
"It's fine and it's logical for the coaches to see new players coming in," said Rougerie, dutifully toeing the party line of the new head coach, Marc Lièvremont, who has picked 34 players for his first four matches, including a dozen debutants. "In the back three the places have only been between four or five players – me, Cédric [Heymans], Vincent [Clerc], Julien and, if he hadn't got injured, Clément Poitrenaud.
"So Anthony Floch came in and now we have the club combination, which is good, because we know each other very well. It helps when you want to take the initiative andto support each other."
The frustrating aspect is that this Clermont combination is one of the most exciting in Europe yet may be hamstrung by the experimentation in other areas. Will Ibrahim Diarra – a Senegalese flanker with a pairof diamond earstuds and a permanently beaming smile – survive to the next World Cup with his equally fresh-faced back-row colleagues Louis Picamoles and Fulgence Ouedraogo? Will they even be picked against Wales next week?
"We know that there will be more changes for Wales," said Emile Ntamack, Lièvremont's backs coach.
When Floch, 25, described Rougerie and Malzieu as "the dinosaurs next to me", he was referring to their size, not their age. Malzieu, 24, is as big as the 27-year-old Rougerie, and the pair of them on the hoof are great to watch and tough to stop. More like tigers than a tyrannosaurus.
"First of all we have a proper role to play, what the coach has asked us to do, then we can go for this kind of attacking rugby," promised Rougerie. "Julien is very quick, he has good hands and you can see he has played a lot of sevens. He's got so many skills that he hasn't shown yet."
France fell into the trap against England of seeking their wings too early; with a better mix of kicking and handling they could let rip against the Italians, whose backs are vulnerable to sustained movement.
Rougerie, a peripheral figure in last autumn's World Cup, is happier with the Lièvremont gameplan, which is more ambitious than that of the previous coach, Bernard Laporte: "Yes, I like it, because it's a difficult game to play. It's attacking, counterattacking, defence: it's physically hard to play in, which also makes it a good challenge."
It is almost six years since Rougerie underwent two operations on his larynx after a challenge by the then Wasps hooker Phil Greening which became the subject of a civil court case in France. The judge awarded Rougerie – who was fed by a drip in hospital for four months – £29,000 compensation for loss of earnings, Greening appealed and the case continues.
"The important thing for me and my family was that the court decided that it was a foul," said Rougerie, who has a crescent-shaped, four-inch scar down his neck as a souvenir. After that, getting picked and dropped and picked again may seem trivial indeed.
France: A Floch; A Rougerie, Y Jauzion, Y David, J Malzieu; F Trinh-Duc, D Yachvili; F Barcella, D Szarzewski, N Mas, L Nallet (capt), J Thion, I Diarra, L Picamoles, F Ouedraogo. Replacements: G Guirado, J-B Poux, A Mela, J Bonnaire, J Tomas, D Traille, V Clerc.
Italy: A Marcato; K Robertson, G Canale, Mi Bergamasco, E Galon; A Masi, S Picone; A Lo Cicero, L Ghiraldini, M Castrogiovanni, CA Del Fava, M Bortolami, J Sole, S Parisse (capt), A Zanni. Replacements: F Ongaro, C Nieto, S Perugini, J Erasmus, P Travagli, E Patrizio, A Sgarbi.
Referee: A Lewis (Ireland).
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