France suffered a double blow less than a month before the hosts open the Rugby World Cup against New Zealand with fly-half Romain Ntamack ruled out with a knee injury and prop Cyril Baille in doubt with a calf problem.
Both picked up injuries during France’s warm-up victory against Scotland in Saint-Etienne on Saturday.
The 37-times-capped Ntamack ruptured cruciate ligaments in his left knee ensuring he will miss out on a second successive World Cup.
“It will take a little time to digest,” Ntamack’s father Emile, a former France international who played in the 1995 and 1999 World Cups, told AFP.
“We are still a little in shock, even if he felt it coming since his injury.
“We were hoping for a pleasant surprise this morning (Monday) but we weren’t under too many illusions. It didn’t feel right. He had already taken blows to the knee and he felt it wasn’t as usual.
“He’s a fighter and I’m not worried about his comeback but a World Cup in your own country is very rare.”
The Toulouse fly-half tried to sound a positive note, posting a brief “I’ll be back” message on social media.
Meanwhile Baille, capped 44 times, is out for “five to six weeks”, the French federation said, but remains uncertain with France’s opening game in Paris on September 8.
Ntamack was helped off the field after 55 minutes after opposite number Finn Russell charged into him.
France coach Fabien Galthie, who will announce his World Cup squad on August 21, had seemed unworried after the match, saying the Toulouse player had suffered “a small hyperextension of the knee”.
“We preferred to replace him. He was seen by the doctor, the physiotherapists, and we will decide on Sunday if there needs to be additional examinations,” he said.
But further tests on Sunday and Monday confirmed the worst.
‘No one irreplaceable’
The news is a bitter blow for the French, who have made the Toulouse player a pivotal element in their game since Galthie took over in January 2020.
Now, weeks before the start of the World Cup, Galthie will have to decide who will link up with Antoine Dupont.
On Saturday, the versatile Thomas Ramos had stepped in when Ntamack left the pitch.
But Ramos, France’s top scorer, seems well installed at full-back.
Bordeaux fly-half Matthieu Jalibert, 24, therefore seems likely to step into Ntamack’s position with La Rochelle’s Antoine Hastoy also moving into contention.
In the meantime, Ntamack will be absent for many months.
A few weeks before the start of the preparation, he had insisted that injury “was part of the sport”.
“We know that we are not invincible. We all know that it is part of the life of an athlete,” he told AFP.
“We try not to think about it too much. Unfortunately, it’s part of the sport.”
Emile Ntamack remained upbeat about France’s chances of still landing the Webb Ellis Cup on home soil in spite of the injury to his son.
“Our objective is not going to change,” Emile Ntamack told AFP.
“If we’re working with an enlarged squad under (Fabien) Galthie, with 42 players, it’s to compensate for this kind of event.
“Let’s make no mistake: we’re losing an important player but that’s the way it is. The team will adapt. Nobody is irreplaceable.
“We’ll have to find the resources to continue what we’ve started and what they’re fighting for.”