Jelonch Back from Knee Surgery to Captain France against Uruguay in His Rugby World Cup Debut

AP Photo/Michel Euler
France’s rugby team take part in a training session at their base camp’s training center in Rueil-Malmaison, outside Paris, Monday, Sept. 11, 2023.

LILLE, France (AP) — Anthony Jelonch’s first match in nearly nine months is as the captain of France in his Rugby World Cup debut.

Jelonch recovered quicker than expected from a ruptured ACL in February to be picked on Tuesday to lead France in its first ever meeting with Uruguay on Thursday in Lille.

“Coming back for this World Cup match as captain is a huge source of pride for me,” he said. “I’ll be doing everything I can to lead my teammates to victory.”

France has made 12 changes after beating New Zealand 27-13 impressively last Friday in Paris. Only lock Cameron Woki, inside back Yoram Moefana and wing Gabin Villiere have retained their starting spots.

Meanwhile, Uruguay scrumhalf Santiago Arata recovered from a broken hand to start against the French. Coach Esteban Meneses has bet on experience, with 11 survivors from the 2019 World Cup. They don’t include replacement loosehead Matias Benitez, who made his test debut in 2010 but could make his World Cup debut at 35 on Thursday.

Jelonch, France’s first-choice blindside flanker, was injured in a Six Nations home win against Scotland in February. He underwent knee surgery eight days later.

“I had my doubts at the start of my rehab, but I knew I had six months, and I had the World Cup in mind,” Jelonch said. “I worked very hard in those six months.

“(Coach) Fabien (Galthie) said to me, ‘You choose the match you want to play.'”

Galthie regarded Jelonch as a figurehead of the team’s values.

“We remember that night against Scotland. We’d won, but it was tough for the group because we knew Anthony was injured,” he said. “He represents the group perfectly. We’ve lived through difficult times in terms of the game, adversity and the environment. But the group always stood together and the players have been strong, and that’s where our strength lies — in determination, confidence and solidarity.”

Jelonch led France previously on the 2021 tour of Australia. The series was lost 2-1 but Jelonch said the captaincy helped him to grow up.

Fellow back-rower Sekou Macalou liked what he’s seen of Jelonch in training.

“He might find it a bit hard, but that’s normal, he hasn’t played in six months,” Macalou said. “Bt he’s as tough as ever in the contact area. We’re back to 100% Anthony.”

Moefana was tipped to make way for Jonathan Danty, who didn’t play against New Zealand because of a tight hamstring. But Galthie wanted to preserve Danty for later pool matches.

The coach had a lot of respect for Uruguay.

“At the 2019 World Cup, they beat Fiji, trailed Wales by a point at halftime and lost to Australia by a very respectable score (45-10),” he said. “They’re a team of fighting spirit and a big heart. We expect to come up against a team with a lot of energy and aggression.”