Understrength France face tough Aussie task
A re-booted Australia are eager to benchmark themselves a year out from the World Cup but are unlikely to glean much from their three-test series starting this week against an understrength France.
Les Bleus finished the Six Nations in fourth place, have not won a match in Australia in 24 years and face a Wallabies team who have won their last four outings against northern hemisphere opposition.
Coach Philippe Saint-Andre has also miscalculated on the fitness of Thierry Dusautoir, returning the captain's armband to him before the tour, then promptly taking it away this week after the powerful flanker pulled up sore from training.
Dusautoir, still battling to recover from a torn bicep, will miss Saturday's first test in Brisbane where veteran prop Nicolas Mas will lead the side at Lang Park with South Africa-born Bernard Le Roux slotting into the back row.
"He is not 100 percent yet so we prefer to give him one week off to be ready for the second test," Saint-Andre said of the 32-year-old Toulouse breakaway.
Dusautoir's omission adds to the task for the French, who are missing a number of their best players due to the late-finishing Top 14 season.
Four players, including first-choice flyhalf Remi Tales, have been rested after playing in the Top 14 final between Castres and Toulon.
In Tales' absence, Saint-Andre has turned to Frederic Michalak to start in the number 10 shirt, despite the seasoned flyhalf arriving late and coming off a month without competitive rugby.
Underlining their challenge, bookmakers rate France a 5-1 shot to upset the world number three side in the first test, but Les Bleus may have a sliver of hope against a shaken-up team expected to be even more rusty six months since their final match of last season, a win over Wales.
In his 10 months in the job, Australia coach Ewen McKenzie has regularly trumpeted his 'form-over-reputation' mantra and stuck true to his word this week, dumping skipper James Horwill to the bench and omitting world class scrumhalf Will Genia altogether for Brisbane.
Both players were instrumental in McKenzie's successful reign at Queensland Reds, which yielded the Super Rugby championship in 2011, and their sidelining has been blamed for poor ticket sales among provincial-minded Brisbanites.
While McKenzie favoured the experience of hooker Stephen Moore over the exuberance of young flanker Michael Hooper in awarding the captaincy, his halves pairing of Nic White and number 10 Bernard Foley are virtually on debut against France and will be firmly under the microscope.
With the mercurial flyhalf Quade Cooper ruled out with a serious shoulder injury, the Lang Park crowd may be witness to more conservative stewardship from White and Foley, who lack the New Zealand-born playmaker's theatrics but have directed traffic well for their respective Super Rugby teams this season.
"Being around the Wallabies last year you don't always want to be the filler," 24-year-old Foley, who played all four of his tests last year off the bench, told local media this week.
"You want to cement a spot somewhere in the side and to get first crack at 10 is very exciting and very pleasing."
Foley will take goalkicking duties at Lang Park, where number eight Wycliff Palu and prop James Slipper will also mark 50th tests.
The teams play the second test in Melbourne next week, with the third and final match in Sydney.
AUSTRALIA: Israel Folau, Adam Ashley-Cooper, Tevita Kuridrani, Matt Toomua, Nick Cummins, Bernard Foley, Nic White, Wycliff Palu, Michael Hooper, Scott Fardy, Sam Carter, Rob Simmons, Sekope Kepu, Stephen Moore (captain), James Slipper. Reserves: Tatafu Polota-Nau, Pek Cowan, Paddy Ryan, James Horwill, Ben McCalman, Nick Phipps, Kurtley Beale, Pat McCabe
FRANCE: Hugo Bonneval, Yoann Huget, Gael Fickou Wesley Fofana, Felix Le Bourhis, Frederic Michalak, Maxime Machenaud, Bernard Le Roux, Damien Chouly, Fulgence Ouedraogo, Yoann Maestri, Sebastien Vahaamahina, Nicolas Mas (captain), Guilhem Guirado, Thomas Domingo. Reserves: Christopher Tolofua, Vincent Debaty, Rabah Slimani, Alexandre Flanquart, Antoine Burban, Morgan Parra, Remi Lamerat, Brice Dulin
First test June 7 Brisbane
Second test June 14 Melbourne
Third test June 21 Sydney
LAST MEETINGS (date, winner, score, venue)
2012 France 33-6 Paris
2010 Australia 59-16 Paris
2009 Australia 22-6 Sydney
2008 Australia 18-13 Paris
2008 Australia 40-10 Brisbane
2008 Australia 34-13 Sydney