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France coach Brunel under pressure ahead of 6N Scotland game

(AP Photo/Alastair Grant)

By JEROME PUGMIRE

AP Sports Writer

PARIS (AP) It's the latest maverick selection choice from France coach Jacques Brunel, who changes his sides much more often than he wins games.

This time he's picked a halves pair with no international experience of playing together for the must-win Six Nations encounter against Scotland on Saturday.

Brunel's trying to avoid a third straight tournament defeat and an 11th in 14 matches during an increasingly ill-fated reign. So he's picked Antoine Dupont at scrumhalf and Romain Ntamack at flyhalf - even though Ntamack is a center by trade and they've played just once as halves together for club side Toulouse.

The designated kicker in what could be a tight game is fullback Thomas Ramos, who gets lumped with extra pressure in his first test start.

It is the latest confusing selection choice from Brunel, who served up his team to get punished by Owen Farrell's kicking game by picking two centers on the wings and a wing at fullback in the 44-8 hammering by England . It reflects a lack of leadership and direction , flaws so evident in the early try conceded against England and in the blunders against Wales.

Scotland will surely take the field at Stade de France confident of a first win in France since 1999.

"Scotland are going to come to our place to beat us, like everyone else at the moment," flanker Arthur Iturria said.

Brunel's C.V. makes for grim reading: A first ever loss to Fiji and France's heaviest defeat to England since 1911. France has been in disarray since the Twickenham debacle two weeks ago amid reports of simmering mutiny at the team's training camp.

Scrumhalf Morgan Parra and flyhalf Camille Lopez were critical of the training methods leading up to the England game.

Rather than tackle the criticism, Brunel seems to have applied censure as a preferred method. They won't even be on the bench on Saturday and Brunel has thus overlooked 92 test caps worth of combined experience.

When he paired Parra and Lopez for the opening match against Wales, Brunel said it was something he had been planning and that only injuries had prevented him doing so. He also hailed their understanding together at club level with Clermont. Yet, instead of continuing to build the backs around them, he's gone for Dupont and Ntamack - even though Ntamack has played only three club games at flyhalf.

Brunel bluntly insisted his decision to cut Parra and Lopez was nothing to do with their critical comments, and even blamed the media for twisting their words.

He has also made his own position even more vulnerable following the 24-19 loss to Wales - where the French led 16-0 at halftime - and the England fiasco.

Caught in the middle of France's maelstrom is rugby federation president Bernard Laporte. It was his decision to fire Guy Noves in December 2017 and replace him with Brunel - his assistant during Laporte's time as France coach in the early 2000s.

Noves is reportedly claiming up to 2.7 million euros ($3.1 million) for wrongful dismissal.

He lost 13 and drew one of his 21 games in charge. But Brunel's record is even worse, and so for Laporte's sake he really needs to win on Saturday.

Defeat to Scotland, with a trip to Ireland to follow, will increase the clamor for Brunel to be replaced before the Rugby World Cup in Japan in September.

A boost for France, however, is Scotland has lost four key players to injuries after losing 22-13 at home to Ireland . Out are fullback Stuart Hogg, flyhalf strategist Finn Russell, center Huw Jones, and flanker Ryan Wilson. The strength of Scotland's depth will be on show on Saturday.

"Like France, we, too, are coming off the back of a defeat and want to show a better picture of ourselves," coach Gregor Townsend said.

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Lineups:

France: Thomas Ramos, Yoann Huget, Mathieu Bastareaud, Gael Fickou, Damian Penaud, Romain Ntamack, Antoine Dupont; Louis Picamoles, Arthur Iturria, Wenceslas Lauret, Felix Lambey, Sebastien Vahaamahina, Demba Bamba, Guilhem Guirado (captain), Jefferson Poirot. Reserves: Camille Chat, Etienne Falgoux, Dorian Aldegheri, Paul Willemse, Gregory Alldritt, Baptiste Serin, Anthony Belleau, Maxime Medard.

Scotland: Blair Kinghorn, Tommy Seymour, Nick Grigg, Sam Johnson, Sean Maitland, Pete Horne, Greig Laidlaw (captain); Josh Strauss, Jamie Ritchie, Magnus Bradbury, Jonny Gray, Grant Gilchrist, Simon Berghan, Stuart McInally, Allan Dell. Reserves: Fraser Brown, Alex Allan, Zander Fagerson, Ben Toolis, Gary Graham, Ali Price, Adam Hastings, Darcy Graham.

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Updated February 21, 2019