Antoine Dupont is the beating heart of the French side
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The more of France you watch, the more you realise – this is Antoine Dupont’s world and we’re all just living in it.
Dupont has a skillset that is unique among not only scrum halves but all rugby players. The vision and distribution that any world-class No 9 has is married with a sniping acceleration and fleetness of foot up there with the best wingers in the world.
A low centre of gravity gives him the strength of a bowling ball skittling defenders and means he is seemingly impervious to the disruptive influence of opposition flankers lurking around the ruck.
His partnership for club and country with now-injured fly half Romain Ntamack is telepathic and he directs the French attack with the grace and confidence of an orchestra conductor. Simply put, and with apologies to reigning World Rugby Men’s 15s Player of the Year Josh van der Flier, Dupont is the best player in the world.
If Les Bleus are to finally get over the line and lift the Rugby World Cup for the first time, having been runners-up on three occasions, their talismanic No 9 will have to deliver the goods. And make no mistake, that is the expectation.
There’s a palpable sense of excitement throughout France as they enter this home World Cup that stretches far beyond the traditional rugby heartlands in the south of the country. A mouth-watering opening clash against New Zealand at the Stade de France on Friday evening is the ultimate appetiser for what is to come.
Dupont is undoubtedly the poster boy of the tournament, his visage adorning hundreds of billboards and adverts. Being the face of a major global event brings a certain pressure that can either mould a diamond or crush an athlete.
Dupont isn’t showing the pressure so far
Cathy Freeman at the Sydney 2000 Olympics, Jessica Ennis-Hill at London 2012 and Lionel Messi at last year’s men’s football World Cup rose to the occasion, while things were much stickier for Kostas Kenteris at the Athens 2004 Olympics and Liu Xiang in Beijing four years later. But Dupont is confident he will cope.
“There’s pressure because we’re expected to do well, and we’ve built up people’s hopes over the last four seasons with the results we’ve had,” he said in a pre-match press conference. “But the pressure isn’t as high as the motivation and standards we set ourselves – or our ambition. Above all, we believe in ourselves. That’s what drives us. We have to keep doing what we’ve been doing for the last four years.”
What they’ve been doing for the past four years is turning themselves into a ruthless winning machine, all geared towards this home World Cup. The old cliché that “you never know which France team will turn up” has always been borderline nonsensical but now it’s outright ludicrous. Head coach Fabien Galthie has manufactured a remarkable consistency that has seen Les Bleus finish in the top two of every Six Nations during this World Cup cycle.
With a world-class coaching team including the likes of general manager Raphael Ibanez, the best defence coach of the 21st century, and maybe all-time, Shaun Edwards and assistant coach William Servat, the France squad are a well-drilled unit in addition to being replete with world-class talent.
They have remarkable depth and that will be tested with fly half Romain Ntamack, lock Paul Willemse, prop Cyril Baille and centre Jonathan Danty all battling injury, although Baille and Danty are expected to be back at some point during the group stage. Ntamack is a key blow but back-up Matthieu Jalibert is a world-class replacement who would likely start at No 10 for 90 per cent of teams at this World Cup, so they shouldn’t miss a beat.
Matthieu Jalibert will play a key role in the absence of Romain Ntamack
The recent build-up to the tournament has been overshadowed by the controversial call-up of Bastien Chalureau to replace Willemse. Chalureau was sentenced to six months in prison in 2020 for a racially motivated assault on two other rugby players, although he has denied the racist character of the incident and appealed against that aspect of the ruling. With a deep pool of quality second-rowers to call upon, the wisdom of opting for such a notorious player has been questioned.
Regardless, as a rugby-mad country impatiently expects, this France team know that they are in place to make history.
Coach: Fabien Galthie
Captain: Antoine Dupont
Key Player: Jonathan Danty – Antoine Dupont is the obvious, and probably correct, answer but you know what you’re getting with the scrum-half superstar. Danty deserves a nod as he has become perhaps the world’s best power centre over the past couple of years and his abrasive carrying makes Les Bleus’ attack tick. He’s not fit for the World Cup opener against the All Blacks but should be back during the pool stage at some point.
Rising star: Cameron Woki – When a team is as well-established as France have become during this World Cup cycle, it’s tough to pinpoint a rising star. Twenty-year-old Bordeaux winger Louis Bielle-Biarrey is electric and could provide an X-factor but faces a battle to even make the matchday 23. Meanwhile, giant forward Cameron Woki is still only 24 years old and the injury to Paul Willemse has given him an opportunity in the second row alongside Thibaud Flament. He’d played most of his career in the back row before a shock switch to lock in autumn 2021, where his speed around the park and almost unrivalled lineout ability will be even more of a boon.
Big question: Can France overcome both the loss of key players such as Romain Ntamack and Paul Willemse as well as the huge home pressure?
Forwards: Cyril Baille, Jean-Baptiste Gros, Reda Wardi, Uini Atonio, Dorian Aldegheri, Sipili Falatea; Julien Marchand, Peato Mauvaka, Pierre Bourgarit; Thibaud Flament, Romain Taofifenua, Cameron Woki, Bastien Chalureau; Gregory Alldritt, Paul Boudehent, Francois Cros, Sekou Macalou, Charles Ollivon, Anthony Jelonch.
Backs: Antoine Dupont (captain), Maxime Lucu, Baptiste Couilloud; Matthieu Jalibert, Antoine Hastoy; Gael Fickou, Jonathan Danty, Arthur Vincent, Yoram Moefana; Damian Penaud, Gabin Villiere, Louis Bielle-Biarrey, Thomas Ramos, Melvyn Jaminet.
Friday 8 September: France vs New Zealand, Pool A (Paris, 8.15pm)
Thursday 14 September: France vs Uruguay, Pool A (Lille, 8pm)
Thursday 21 September: France vs Namibia, Pool A (Marseille, 8pm)
Friday 6 October: France vs Italy, Pool A (Lyon, 8pm)
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