By Peter Jackson
A new fly-half is on schedule to do something beyond the most revered No.10’s, from Cliff Morgan in the 1950’s to Dan Carter half a century later.
The same goes for the rest whose names are to be found in the Pantheon, from Jack Kyle to Phil Bennett, Richard Sharp to Barry John, Mike Gibson to Jonny Wilkinson. None of them quite got round to doing what a French soldier’s son is about to do.
According to those in the know, the launch of the Six Nations on Saturday week will be marked by the advent of the first teenaged fly-half to start a Championship match for a very long time. His name is not Marcus Smith of Harlequins but Matthieu Jalibert of Bordeaux.
Now those who have been around for a while will be tempted to greet word of the next big French playmaker with an overpowering sense of déjà vu. They will remember Thomas Castaignede who famously announced himself by sticking his tongue out in celebration of dropping the winning goal against Jack Rowell’s England.
Castaignede was different in more ways than one and, for a while, he promised to live up to the hype before being struck by a series of crippling injuries. Christophe Lamaison was another, not as talented as Castaignede but good enough to produce the greatest single performance by a French fly- half which I had the good fortune to witness, against New Zealand at Twickenham in that unforgettable semi-final of the 1999 World Cup.
A steady procession of pretenders to the throne have come and gone since then, the most recent, Camille Lopez, removed from the equation after breaking his leg in October. By a strange coincidence, his season ended the week before Jalibert’s began.
Therefore, in a matter of weeks, the 19-year-old has gone from nowhere to the putative starting ten for France against Ireland in Paris on Saturday week. It may help to have his club coach, Jacques Brunel, in charge of national affairs but anyone who has seen anything of the boy with the crew-cut will not be that surprised.
Ben Kay is not a man given to chucking praise about like confetti, as befitting a second row who learnt one of the more punishing trades of the game locked into a scrum alongside one Martin Johnson for Leicester and England. Now one of television’s most enlightened pundits, Kay does not stick his neck out for the sake of it.
On BT Sport the other night, he described Jalibert as ‘the most exciting talent I have ever seen’. Canal+, the French pay-per-view channel, have seen fit to herald his arrival by compiling a nine-minute ‘tribute’ which includes an outrageous break in his Top 14 debut against Toulouse.
It provides compelling evidence that Jalibert has been blessed with a full set of the fly-half’s stock-in-trade. The young master has come a long way in a short time since first picking up a rugby ball in New Caledonia while his father was stationed there.
Jalibert pays due tribute for his rapid development to one of Bordeaux’s English coaches, Rory Teague. “He speaks very highly of Rory,’’ a Bordeaux source tells me. “Matthieu is very calm, very mature. He knows he’s good. His role model is Owen Farrell.’’
At 5ft 11ins and less than 13 stone, Jalibert is shorter and lighter than England’s most valuable player. While the Gallic pretender can justifiably claim to play the game with a more natural sense of joie de vivre, he will have to go some to match Farrell’s indestructible qualities, as much mentally as physically.
If in time Jalibert proves as tough in both respects, France will truly have unearthed a world-beater. Assuming he gets the nod against Ireland, the new boy could do worse than spare a thought for the Toulon ten who was in his position this time last year as the next big thing.
Anthony Belleau, whose rapid fly- half promotion failed to save Guy Noves from the sack, will wait and watch with more than passing interest. Jalibert turned 19 only some ten weeks ago but Brunel would appear to have no doubts about throwing him straight into the deep end.
Even Barry John wasn’t considered ready until he had almost reached the ripe old age of 22. None of the greats made it into the Test arena in their teens and the one fly-half who managed it in the Five-Six Nations did so half a century ago, 18-year-old Billy McCombe for Ireland in Paris in January 1968.
Others who have made their bow at the same age in the championship are few and far between. Lewis Jones, the last teenaged Test Lion, won his Wales cap against England in 1950 at 18 before embarking on a stellar career in Rugby League two years later.
Keith Jarrett’s fairytale debut in the same position at the same age against the same opposition followed in 1967 which just happened to be the year Gareth Edwards won his first cap, then nearer 20 than 19. He and rugby lovers the world over will have a treat in store should Jalibert take the chasm between club and international game in his stride.
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