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This Saturday’s Top 14 Final is not just about raising the trophy, it’s the last chance for players to earn a spot on France's World Cup squad.
France head coach Jacques Brunel announced a 65-player World Cup training squad just a couple of weeks ago. He set a June 18 date for the 31-player squad to be named citing fitness standards as a crucial component to selection.
Last Saturday in Bordeaux, Brunel made several cameos on the FloRugby broadcast of Toulouse’s Top 14 semifinal victory over La Rochelle.
Brunel will be in the building for the final and he'll go to sleep on Saturday night with Guitoune, Raka, and Penaud on his mind.
Good Chance For Guitoune
Last Saturday, Jacques Brunel got to see Sofiane Guitoune’s masterful performance from the outside center position. Guitoune danced through the La Rochelle defense to touch down the first try of the match, and later set-up Cheslin Kolbe with the try that put Toulouse into the final.
Brunel watched as Guitoune smiled and wave to the Toulouse fans as his replacement, Romain Ntamack, came onto the pitch with only eight minutes left in the match.
Remember, Ntamack was one of Brunel’s surprising selections this Six Nations, and Guitoune was one of the shocking snubs.
Both were named to the preliminary squad and will compete with each other for selection.
Guitoune only has five caps for France to date, but he found his stride at outside center after playing the majority of his career at outside center. Mathieu Bastareaud has been the household name at outside center for France, but he's recently signed to Rugby United New York after a poor season with Toulon.
This weekend is Guitoune's chance to pass Ntamack and Bastareaud.
The Raka & Penaud Show
Clermont’s Alivereti Raka and Damien Penaud were both named to France’s extended training squad.
Raka has been a wrecking ball since coming to Clermont in 2014, while Penaud plays the finesse role on the opposite wing.
In 2017, Raka scored Clermont’s only try in their Top14 final victory.
Who assisted that try? Damien Penaud.
Jacques Brunel has waited patiently for Raka to come available for France. In December of 2018 Raka was granted French citizenship and out came the January rumors of a possible Six Nations appearance.
Instead, a mosquito bite infection delayed his hand surgery and selection.
Damien Penaud was selected however. At only 22 years old Penaud has racked up 11 caps.
Finally, the time has come. Raka and Penaud are healthy and thriving. Last week in the Top14 semifinal against Lyon, Raka gave Penaud a try and Penaud gave Raka one right back.
France's first choice wingers in Japan later this year?pic.twitter.com/Dr5z4hgwJz— Paul Eddison (@pauleddison) June 9, 2019
Just because Raka enters the fold doesn’t necessarily mean Penaud should disappear from Brunel’s eye. These guys serve each other.
Huge Pressure For Huget
With 58 caps for France Yoann Huget is the incumbent wing.
He wants to win the Top14 title for France like he said in his post-match interview for Toulouse last weekend, but there’s more at stake.
He can’t let Raka and Penaud put on a show.
Huget is going to make the World Cup squad, sure. But the Top14 final in Paris is a national stage. Play poorly in front of your country and Jacques Brunel has to start answering questions from now until September.