PARIS (AP) — France desperately needs a win against Tonga on Saturday to prevent an already dismal year from getting even worse.
A World Cup runner-up two years ago, France has slipped badly this year, finishing last in the Six Nations Championship and then losing four consecutive games to New Zealand, including a 26-19 defeat last weekend and a 30-0 whitewash on tour there in June.
Although France competed strongly at times against the All Blacks last Saturday, nearly scoring a try at the end that would likely have salvaged a draw, the stark reality is that France's record in 2013 is awful: one win, one draw, seven losses.
"We have to surpass ourselves, get back to winning ways and remove this taste of defeat from 2013 from our mouths," France coach Philippe Saint-Andre said Thursday. But a defeat against Tonga in Le Havre would crush morale ahead of France's final match of the year against South Africa the following week — which is a difficult enough test even for a team that's high on confidence.
"We can't think about South Africa, we're preparing for Tonga and we need a win," Saint-Andre said. He has made five changes to face Tonga. Sofiane Guitoune wins his first cap and replaces Yohan Huget on the right wing while Gael Fickou starts at center instead of Florian Fritz.
"Guitoune senses rugby, he is a finisher, he knows how to find space," Saint-Andre said. "It's no coincidence that he's the top scorer in the Top 14 league (for Perpignan)." In the forwards, flanker Fulgence Ouedraogo slots in for Wenceslas Lauret — who had a good game against the All Blacks last weekend — Sebastien Vahaamahina comes in for Pascal Pape and Dimitri Szarzewski starts at hooker ahead of Benjamin Kayser.
Saint-Andre has stuck with the inexperienced halves pairing of scrumhalf Morgan Parra and flyhalf Remi Tales. Veteran flyhalf Frederic Michalak and burly center Mathieu Bastareaud both return to the squad and will be on the bench in Le Havre.
"I like it when there's contact. You know Tonga will be ready for that," Bastareaud said. "Tonga's game has improved. It's not just about 80 minutes of combat any more. But before we can impose our style of play, we need to be aggressive."
Tonga brings back bad memories for France, too, a 19-14 defeat during the 2011 World Cup group stage that led to scathing criticism from the French media. It was arguably France's worst ever performance in a World Cup, punctuated by missed tackles, errant passes and dropped catches.
"We have to forget about that World Cup defeat," Saint-Andre said. France and Tonga are even with two wins each in their four previous meetings. It was hard to see France's slump coming, considering the French beat Australia, Argentina and Samoa at the same period last year.
"It's always been highs and lows with France. But I sense there's more confidence in this squad, and we need to leave the past behind," Michalak said. "I'm impatient to play in Le Havre in a stadium where the fans are close to you. It's true that sometimes they're a bit distant at Stade de France."
Tonga surprisingly lost 19-18 away to Romania last weekend in their first meeting.
France: Brice Dulin, Sofiane Guitoune, Gael Fickou, Wesley Fofana, Maxime Medard, Remi Tales, Morgan Parra; Damien Chouly, Fulgence Ouedraogo, Thierry Dusautior (captain), Yoann Maestri, Sebastien Vahaamahina, Nicolas Mas, Dimitri Szarzewski, Yannick Forestier. Reserves: Benjamin Kayser, Vincent Debaty, Rabah Slimani, Pascal Pape, Bernard Leroux, Jonathan Pelissie, Frederic Michalak, Mathieu Bastareaud.
Tonga: Vungakoto Lilo, Fetu'u Vainikolo, Siale Piutau, Sione Piukala, William Helu, Fangatapu 'Apikotoa, Taniela Moa; Opeti Fonua, Nili Latu (captain), Sione Kalamafoni, Joseph Tu'ineau,Tukulua Lokotui, Tevita Mailau, Elvis Taione, Alisona Taumalolo. Reserves: Ilaisa Ma'asi, Taione Vea, Sila Puafisi, Viliami Ma'afu, Hale Pole, Samisoni Fisilau, Latiume Fosita, Tevita Halaifonua.