Former teen prodigy nears playing return after year out of game
As debate rages over who coaches picked for the Six Nations, and who they should have picked, one player who definitely won’t be in action has quietly returned to training after a year out with injury.
French fly-half Mathieu Jalibert – who suffered a serious knee injury on his international debut – could be back in action for Bordeaux in the Top 14 match against Grenoble on Febuary 23, or for the trip to Montpellier on March 3, after returning to training with the full squad this week for the first time since August.
“I saw the surgeon again last week and he gave the green light,” Jalibert told reporters after coming through a second training session on Tuesday. “But you have to manage the load, I can’t start all over again all at once.
“I’m in the last cycle, I’m starting to get back into training. As the weeks go by, we will spend more and more time on full training with the group.”
Jalibert’s return is too late for the 2019 Six Nations, which ends on March 16. It may even be too late for the World Cup in Japan – though France coach Jacques Brunel said at the Six Nations media launch that there were places to be filled, “even if the bone structure has been identified”.
A cruel twist of fate – and of his left knee – ended what had been a fairytale start to Jalibert’s career. There had been much excitement about the rare talent from Bordeaux among the French rugbyrati for some time, but even they – who know about these things – could not foresee the rapidity of his rise.
At the start of the 2017/18 season, Jalibert, then 18, had played no top-flight rugby. Then, in just 11 Top 14 and Challenge Cup games, including nine starts, he was included in France coach Brunel’s first international squad.
Even more remarkably, the first of his nine starts was not until November 4 at Toulouse, two days before he turned 19, where he put on an unforgettable performance. He slotted seven of nine kicks at goal, and marshalled operations with calm precision. His first start ended in defeat. No shame in that, Toulouse were playing some breath-taking rugby. But, that day, Bordeaux had them rattled. And Jalibert could even have won the game, but he missed a decisive 40m-plus after-the-hooter penalty by the width of an upright.
In the games that followed he only got better, but it was still a surprise when his name was included in France’s 2018 Six Nations’ squad. By all accounts, the player himself was in a marketing class at lycee when he heard the news.
There were, understandably, calls for Brunel to take care with his young halfback star. He was, after all, only 19 and had played just a handful of games. Some even hoped he would remain with the under-20 squad for another year.
But Brunel, it was ultimately assumed, knew his player better than most. He was the one, after all, who gave Jalibert his chance at Bordeaux in the first place, before he accepted Bernard Laporte’s offer of the France job.
So it was the young 10 made his international debut against Ireland on February 3, 2018. He lasted 30 minutes before his international and domestic seasons were ended by a cruciate ligament injury. France would also lose young scrum-half Antoine Dupont to the same injury later in the same match.
Jalibert returned in pre-season – only to aggravate the posterior cruciate ligaments in the same knee in a friendly against Natal Sharks a week before the 2018/19 Top 14 season kicked off.
Nearly six months later, there is finally light at the end of the injury tunnel. “We set ourselves a goal four weeks after the medical green light,” Jalibert said. “So that I could handle a fairly heavy workload, and perhaps be ready for selection at the end of February. Either for Grenoble, or Montpellier.”
Assuming he remains fit, Jalibert will have two international matches in the summer to stake his claim for a seat on the plane to Japan.
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