France under-strength, but 'exciting' squad still a real test for Wallabies

Wallabies assistant coach Scott Wisemantel has rubbished suggestions France will present a weakened threat for the Wallabies given the star-studded omissions from their squad, pointing to the number of graduates from their successful under 20s program and a player in the mould of Hunter Paisami, as reasons why Australia are in for a huge challenge next month.

And Wisemantel is adamant a number of Wallabies spots are still up for grabs, revealing Dave Rennie and the coaching staff are placing genuine value on training paddock contributions by declaring a "gold, silver and bronze" effort at the end of each day.

Ongoing fears for the quality of the French squad were however confirmed late last week when it was revealed that players from the two Top 14 finalists, Toulouse and La Rochelle, would not be taking any part in the tour, meaning first-choice halves combination Antoine Dupont and Romain Ntamack [Toulouse] would not be making the trip Down Under.

And even then the likes of Gael Fickou and Virimi Vakatawa [Racing 92] were also omitted after a long European season, while star flanker Charles Ollivon suffered an ACL injury on the final day of the regular Top 14 season.

The 42-man French squad appears short on experience, boasting 22 uncapped players.

But it is still loaded with talent according to Wisemantel, the Wallabies assistant rattling off a number of players whom he predicts will catch the eye Down Under.

"It's an exciting team, a very good team," Wisemantel said Tuesday. "So if you look at it, you look at loosehead, you're probably gonna have Jean Baptiste Gros. Tighthead you'll probably have Demba Bamba, a superstar at Lyon.

"Lock, you'll have a bit of a warhorse in there in [Romain] Taofifenua. Back-row's exciting, really exciting, you've got young [Cameron] Woki there from Bordeaux, he's outstanding; you've got [Anthony] Gelonch from Castres, a real workhorse.

"If you look at the backline, you've got guys like Teddy Thomas, really experienced. I don't know who'll they pick in the centres because they've got a fair few choices there. They've got Jonathan Danty, if you don't know him he's like a Hunter Paisami for us, plays at Stade Francais. And then you've got Arthur Vincent at Montpellier, and then the third choice there is Pierre-Louis Barassi at Lyon.

"On the wing you've got Damien Penaud who's got real pedigree, his dad played for France...and at fullback you've got young [Anthony] Boutier from Montpellier. All those guys that I've mentioned have been capped."

Australia is currently reaping the rewards of an Under 20s team that made it all the way to the 2019 Junior World Championship final, with forwards Angus Bell, Harry Wilson, Fraser McReight, Lachlan Lonergan and fly-half Noah Lolesio all graduating to the Wallabies environment in the last 12 months.

The team the Junior Wallabies were beaten by in the 2019 decider? France.

Wisemantel noted the absence of Dupont, who has established himself at least the equal of All Blacks scrum-half Aaron Smith - the New Zealander himself recently said Dupont had indeed surpassed him - but referred to that trophy-winning under 20s team, so too a weakened French outfit that almost upset a full-strength England at Twickenham last year, as reasons why the Wallabies wouldn't be underestimating their opposition.

"Yeah you've mentioned Antoine Dupont, but who else [is missing]? Ollivant? Yeah, well you know what, this Woki is going to go past him," he said. "These kids; so for instance in 2019 everyone raved about our young kids, we've got [a few] of them [from the 20s squad] from 2019 in the [Wallabies], they've got six.

"So it's game on, we've got young kids, they've got young kids...I've gone through all the hypotheticals of who's who at the zoo; I've picked my team and I've repicked my team. But as you know with the French in general, it can be a bit [crazy] so you don't know what's going to roll up and when they get on a roll they're so dangerous; they're a bloody good team."

The Wallabies have now been in camp on the Gold Coast for a week, but they still have a fortnight to prepare for the first Test at the Sydney Cricket Ground on Jul. 7.

Given the touring French squad will be contained to their hotel rooms outside of daily training blocks in the lead up to the first Test, the Australians should be in a far better mental and physical space than the tourists. Then again, Argentina were able to stun the All Blacks having been forced into similar quarantine protocols ahead of the Tri Nations last year.

And it appears as though Rennie and the rest of the Wallabies staff may have already had their thinking tested by what they have seen at Sanctuary Cove, Wisemantel confirming pre-held selections plans had already been challenged with some committed efforts over the last week.

"Every day it's changing, because at the end of every training day we pick a gold, silver and bronze as far as our best three on the ground. So it's been quite diverse our best three. Wisemantel said when asked if the 23 for the first Test was locked.

"It's just coaches at the end of the day talking amongst each other and debating. So whilst we have a blueprint of roughly what we think might be the 23, it's nothing set in stone at this stage. Nothing. So the competition's fierce."

Asked how much value was being placed on the daily "gold, silver, bronze" selections, Wisemantel replied: "A fair bit, because if the same name keeps coming up; when you have a selection meeting, you have to play devil's advocate.

"So if someone says someone's a shoe-in and then all of a sudden you've got a person who's been on the podium every day, well you go 'hang on, how does this work?' So are we rewarding mediocrity or are we rewarding efforts on the training pitch? It's a good debate."

Wisemantel didn't confirm whether James O'Connor, who missed the Reds' final two Super Rugby Trans-Tasman games, would be available for selection in Sydney, saying only that he was "in and out" of sessions.

But Reece Hodge, who missed the entire Trans-Tasman campaign, has been involved in everything as he seeks as much training work as possible to return to peak fitness.