Throwback ... Wesley Fofana. Photo: Getty Images
For those trying to ascertain what the French will bring against the Wallabies this weekend, the easy route is simply to point to their emotional volatility and say no one knows.
But there is more to it than Gallic temperament: some of the unpredictability is more easily traceable, and it begins with their domestic game. "We had no idea of what they were going to do," All Blacks captain Richie McCaw recently wrote of the build-up to New Zealand's 2007 World Cup quarter-final loss to France. "Instead of employing the running game, known in France apparently as the 'Toulouse style', they decided to implement the 'Biarritz style', which is shorthand for spoiling rugby, keeping it tight and kicking."
That is why, when running through the French squad this week, two big names were particularly conspicuous by their absence: halfback Dimitri Yachvili and No.8 Imanol Harinoduquy, the generals of Biarritz, who are injured. This French squad looks a little more Toulouse than Biarritz. No.8 Louis Picamoles thrives in space and is evasive in the midfield. It is good news for the neutral, and a challenge for the Wallabies' coaches.
If you need evidence as how Yachvili, in particular, and Harinoduquy can be dominating, or suffocating, presences in a game, look no further than this year's Amlin cup final, the deciding game in Europe's second-tier competition, for the sides that failed to qualify for the Heineken Cup. Biarritz beat Toulon 21-18. It was the worst game of rugby of the year, comfortably. Aesthetically, it made the Brumbies-Reds contest in Canberra look like a lost Monet, mostly because of Biarritz's refusal to let the ball go wider than their No.9. Yachvili kicked, Harinoduquy took lineouts, and Yachvili kicked penalties - monotonously but excellently.
If France - who have creativity available at No.9 and No.10 from the likes of Maxime Machenaud, Morgan Parra, Freddie Michalak and Francois Trinh-Duc - go down a similar path, the lack of fluency will not assist them. The Wallabies have not lost many penalty contests this year, from the boots of either Berrick Barnes or Mike Harris. Stop-start affairs have not troubled them and recent selections at No.15 have inserted a goalkicker rather than a counter-attacker. And there is nothing they would love more than the Parisian crowd growing at first restless and then sullen.
Other factors might encourage France to play with some width. Their inside-centre, Wesley Fofana, who plays at inside-centre for Clermont but has been picked on the right wing, is something of a throwback. In an era when No.12s are routinely 100 kilograms, Fofana is a relative waif, relying on timing and speed to evade the line rather than conquer it physically. Consequently, some of the prose he attracts verges towards the flowery. But statistics also tell his tale. In his most recent Heineken Cup game, on a relatively heavy track against Exeter Chiefs two weeks ago, Fofana ran the ball 224 metres. Some might query the opposition but the Chiefs are one of Europe's big improvers. Fofana, coached at club level by a former Robbie Deans assistant, Vern Cotter, was not part of France's World Cup squad so is not that well known, but at 24 he is one of those players who has the talent and opportunity in the coming weeks to make his name known far outside the borders of his own country. But Michael Hooper is one Australian in that category, too.
But before these talents can be brought into the game the scrum will be the cornerstone. It's no coincidence that French competition leaders Toulon have Carl Hayman, Andrew Sheridan and Gethin Jenkins on the payroll. The Top 14 is built on strongmen.
The national side can call upon the two squattest men in Test rugby, Nicolas Mas and Thomas Domingo, whose low body positions will test the Wallabies' technique, under the new scrum engagement calls, as much as their power. The French have lost something with the retirement of hooker William Servat, who did a job on the All Blacks in the World Cup final, but providing a platform should not be an issue. The Wallabies scrum has improved since Wales, much less a magnet for the referee's whistle, but pressuring opposition ball is not yet in its repertoire.
It is another reason why cold water should be poured on expectations of another Parisian rout, akin to the superb 59-16 performance of two years ago. And despite five straight wins against the French, if a messy one-point win were offered now, Australian hands would grab it.