We might be separated by just 22 miles, but the French are so very different and, of course, that is fully reflected, thankfully, in their approach to rugby. What a boring rugby world it would be if everybody was the same.
Take scrum-half for example. In most countries the fly-half is the totem pole player and dictator of events – Barry John, Ronan O’Gara, Jonny Wilkinson, Dan Carter, Hugo Porta, Diego Dominguez, Stephen Larkham, Joel Stransky, Naas Botha…we could be here until tomorrow if I list all the great tens who have defined their teams.
Not France though. Historically they give little or no thought to their selection at fly-half. Few last more than a couple of seasons or they suffer a frustrating in-and-out career that never sees them quite nailed down as a starter. Some sensational players have suffered that fate – Christophe Lamaison, Thomas Castaignede, Gerald Merceron – remember him, he amassed 80 points when France won the 2002 Grand Slam? – Francois Trinh-Duc, Freddie Michalak et al. France just don’t value their tens, so much so that historically they have often tried to play their second choice scrum-half there.
But their nines? They are rugby royalty and, with one notable exception, the French revere a very particular scrum-half– the feisty pint- sized warrior and leader of men, the ruthless tactician, the small man who thinks big and wants to rule the world. In short, they instinctively look for a diminutive Napoleonic figure to lead them into battle. It appeals to their psyche, it is the natural order of things.
Which is why Antoine Dupont has got them all excited. Small, muscular, very fast, incredibly strong, stroppy, competitive, clever. He ticks all the boxes and I was slightly surprised he wasn’t made captain for this campaign. You can, however, put your mortgage on Dupont captaining France at some stage of his career. He has the confidence to take on the world. As Napoleon himself said: “He who fears being conquered is sure of defeat.”
Let’s just look at the greats whose foosteps he now treads. There have been few smaller Test nines than Jacques Foroux who whipped his gargantuan pack into shape when they won the Grand Slam in 1977. Some of those forwards were almost twice his size but they were putty in his hands. He moulded them into the fighting force he wanted. Fantastic player.
He was succeeded by the small, lithe but explosive Pierre Berbizier who used to make towering forwards quiver when he issued a bollocking. Berbizier totally bossed every side he ever played in and he can reflect on two Grand Slams during his pomp – 1981 and 1987. There was another pocket rocket around for much of that era who was his equal in playing terms – Jerome Gallion – and for the most part they shared the position but when push came to shove for the big matches and campaigns Berbizier always got the nod.
Then comes the exception that proves the rule, the current coach Fabian Galthie who was no giant but noticeably taller and rather more stylish than the normal legendary French nine. To the casual observer Galthie, who oversaw Grand Slams in 1997 and 2002 – might adopt the persona of a Mediterranean playboy on holiday but he bossed his teams with a rod of iron, a very tough customer indeed as anybody slacking in the current French squad will soon discover.
After that it was a return to normal service, at least for the more successful French sides. For a couple of years Phillipe Carbonneau blazed a trail for Brive, Toulouse and France – pound for pound one of the toughest players I’ve ever seen, regardless of position. He was the man leading the charge for France when they won their 1998 Grand Slam.
And let’s not forget that fiery bundle of Basque magic Jean-Baptiste Élissalde – always with his socks around his ankles – who top scored in their 2004 Grand Slam. Dimtiri Yachvilli was next off the conveyor belt – a beacon of hope in a non vintage era for Les Blues – but at least he was around to contribute to their last Grand Slam in 2010 by which time he was handing over the baton to yet another petite general in Morgan Parra.
It’s an illustrious roll of honour and the message is crystal clear. For France to succeed they always need their nine to be in charge.
This year the French Federation is headed by a stroppy former nine – Bernard Laporte – and their head coach Galthie is a celebrated ex-scrum-half. Their most important specialist coach – Shaun Edwards – was a scrum-half when he played for England Schools and their star player – the one Frenchman I would definitely pick in a current world XV – is Dupont. Are the stars aligning?
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