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France turns to 19-year-old Fickou vs. Ireland at Six Nations

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The Canadian Press
3/13/2014 10:07:36 AM
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PARIS -- France will look to teen centre Gael Fickou to provide the creative spark against an Ireland team desperate to give Brian O'Driscoll a perfect send-off in their final Six Nations match on Saturday, with both teams still in contention to win the tournament.

After several substitute appearances, the 19-year-old Fickou makes his first start of the campaign as one of four changes to face an Irish team full of attacking menace after scoring 13 tries so far. The midfield contest between Fickou and the 35-year-old O'Driscoll promises to be an intriguing one between the world's most capped player and one looking to become a future great.

"The speed and youth of Gael Fickou gives us some interesting options. He's in form and we need to see him express his talent," France coach Philippe Saint-Andre said. "It will be a real challenge for him and Mathieu Bastareaud against a good pair of centres. But we believe in him. He's settled in our squad now and is feeling good both mentally and physically."

Fickou, who scored a dramatic late winning try in the 26-24 win over England, replaces Maxime Mermoz, ineffective in last weekend's 19-17 win at Scotland, while the other change in the backs sees flyhalf Remi Tales replacing Jules Plisson.

France, Ireland and England -- which plays in Italy -- have six points each and can all still win the tournament.

Ireland has by far the best points differential (+81) of the three title contenders, while France has the worst (+3) behind England (+32). France has to beat Ireland and hope England draws or loses in Rome to stand a realistic chance of winning the trophy.

"We will try and put in a great performance, and if we manage to please our fans it will be a bonus," Saint-Andre said. "We're preparing ourselves for a match of the highest level after drawing the last two seasons against them."

History counts against Ireland in Paris, where they haven't won since 2000, but they have an extra incentive this time.

O'Driscoll makes his 141st test appearance in a brilliant 15-year career on the same ground where he scored a hat trick of tries in 2000 to give Ireland its first victory in Paris since 1972.

"We don't want to make it O'Driscoll's party," Saint-Andre said.

Fourteen years ago, a fresh-faced O'Driscoll burst onto the international scene with three expertly-taken tries in Ireland's 27-25 win, his blend of speed, flair, safe hands and attacking instinct marking him out as one of the players for the future. Fickou now finds himself in a similar position and is earmarked as a future great.

Last weekend, O'Driscoll pushed back the years with one of his best performances in the green jersey of Ireland. Although he did not add to his 46 international tries, he played a part in three of his team's first four tries in a crushing 46-7 win over Italy at Lansdowne Road.

"He's a great player, and he's been a great servant to Irish rugby and to world rugby. When he arrived on the scene at Stade de France, he was an unknown and he scored three tries," Saint-Andre said. "He could have been French because he had incredible flair, a capacity to keep the ball alive, to make a pass after contact. He captained the British Lions, he captained Ireland and he's brought so much to world rugby."

Tales will line up alongside scrumhalf Maxime Machenaud in the 12th halves pairing Saint-Andre has selected since taking over from Marc Lievremont after France lost the 2011 World Cup final to New Zealand.

Saint-Andre was disappointed with Plisson's defending against Scotland.

"Plisson's statistics in defence were not good enough," Saint-Andre said.

The two changes in the forwards see Dimitri Szarzewski returning from injury to replace Brice Mach and Louis Picamoles reinstated at flanker in place of Sebastien Vahaamahina.

France won its opening two matches of the tournament but then lost 27-6 at Wales before edging past Scotland in another error-strewn performance lacking in creativity.

"If I have to take the blame for it then so be it, but leave my players out of it," Saint-Andre said.

France was previously dominant in the scrum but has struggled to get to grips with rule changes and has also been ineffective in the lineouts.

"The problem rests with us, we have to concentrate on our throws and our jumps," No. 8 Damien Chouly said. "We must be more demanding of ourselves and each other."

Saint-Andre said that Picamoles and Chouly will switch positions during the match.

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France: Brice Dulin, Yoann Huget, Mathieu Bastareaud, Gael Fickou, Maxime Medard, Remi Tales, Maxime Machenaud; Damien Chouly, Alexandre Lapandry, Louis Picamoles, Yoann Maestri, Pascal Pape (captain), Nicolas Mas, Dimitri Szarzewski, Thomas Domingo. Reserves: Guilhem Guirado, Vincent Debaty, Rabah Slimani, Alexandre Flanquart, Sebastien Vahaamahina, Wenceslas Lauret, Jean-Marc Doussain, Maxime Mermoz.

Gael Fickou (Photo: David Rogers/Getty Images)

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(Photo: David Rogers/Getty Images)
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