Shaun Edwards was once the builder of the original red wall. But tomorrow he hopes it’s smashed to pieces, having handed the sledgehammer to Gael Fickou. It’s not the first time Edwards has put his faith in the French centre, as Graham Thomas reports.
Shaun Edwards’ defensive general is determined to command a French resistance force which can deny Wales the Grand Slam in Paris on Saturday night.
Gael Fickou was famously pinpointed by Edwards as the future of French rugby nine years ago.
Now, the two men are aiming to prove an insurmountable force when Wayne Pivac’s team bid to claim a climactic Six Nations clean sweep at the Stade de France, in a battle that is live on S4C.
France still have realistic hopes of taking the title themselves by beating Wales with a bonus point and then repeating the trick in their final re-arranged match at home to Scotland.
If they do, then Fickou – the tough-tackling centre from Toulon – is likely to have been vital to the French cause, giving further proof that Edwards made a wise and perceptive call in making the 26-year-old his defensive captain.
It was back in 2012 when Edwards wrote about the 18-year-old Fickou, “I’ve seen the future and it runs, tackles, scores tries and is called Gael Fickou.”
The teenager – whose father is from Senegal – was playing for France U18s and had yet to play a single game of senior rugby.
The admiration must have stayed with Edwards because one of the first major decisions made by him, working alongside France head coach Fabien Galthie, was to make Fickou the team’s defensive organiser.
Fickou says the responsibility handed to him by the former Wales defence coach has done much to improve his game and that a stronger, more organised France lies in wait for Wales – when compared to the team that lost at home to Warren Gatland’s men in 2019, 2015 and 2013.
“The role of the defense captain is just to be positive with the players, to try to recall defensive instructions every time, and to try to set an example,” says Fickou.
“It is important to be a clear leader in that sector of the game After that, it’s no fuss. It doesn’t mean that you put pressure on yourself, but it’s just trying to lead by example and communicate.”
The player whose strength, power and self-assurance in possession has drawn comparisons with Sonny Bill Williams, has admitted the extra responsibility given to him by Edwards has forced him to improve.
“We try to improve each time, with each season. When you’re 18, 19, 20, you evolve. Today, I’m 26 so we keep evolving and I will evolve more over time.
“I think I have improved a bit in defense, more than before, with the responsibility given to me by the coaches. And I try to make my teammates play more.
“Through the role of defence captain, I am more of a leader on the pitch. I talk a lot more.
“Before, I was much more positioned at No.13, so obviously there is more space in that position. Today, I’m No.12, so I’m more of a relay runner, trying to bring the ball to our wings.”
Fickou scored a try against Italy in France’s opening win of the tournament, was a powerhouse Ireland could not budge in the French victory in Dublin, and was at the heart of a display France feel should have brought them victory rather than narrow defeat against England last weekend.
The Stade Francais player – who moved from Toulouse three years ago – admits there was massive disappointment at their first defeat of the tournament.
But he also insists France have already moved on because their primary aim – to win the championship for the first time since 2010 – is still within their grasp.
The key factor, he says, will not just be his marshalling of the defence, but the speed of the rejuvenated French attack that has scored 11 tries in their three matches.
“At first we were frustrated after Twickenham, but now we have let that go and are focussing on the Wales game.
“We know this is a very important game for us, we are still in the race to win the tournament so we are over-motivated.
“We will do anything to win this game this weekend and we will be ready, I’m sure.
“This last year, we have scored a lot of tries and that is down to some incredible players. The whole of the three-quarter line, and even our forwards, have qualities of incredible speed.
“Of course, having players like Antoine Dupont, Virimi Vakatawa, Teddy Thomas, Damian Penaud – it gives us real added value.
“We saw it last weekend, we saw it against Italy, we saw it against Ireland. And the speed is going to have to be used against Wales.
“It’s a formidable weapon for us, so we have to keep working on this because it’s one of our big strengths. But all of that would never happen without forwards because they do such a huge job.
S4C – Saturday: 7.15pm
Clwb Rygbi Rhyngwladol – France v Wales.
Live coverage of France v Wales in the 2021 Six Nations Championship. Kick off 8.00pm.