Twenty-five minutes into Le Crunch, a viral moment was born. England were 17-0 down, going through the phases a few metres out when the ball went loose.
Julian Marchand, the French hooker, grabbed the ball and threw it to full-back Anthony Bouthier, who calmly launched an 85-metre spiral kick indirectly into touch.
If you googled Bouthier at that moment, you wouldn’t have found much. The 27-year-old Montpellier back was making his debut for Les Bleus in only his first season with a Top 14 club. Before that, he played for Vannes, starting out in Federale 1 before gaining promotion to the Pro D2.
New coach Fabien Galthie preferred Bouthier to Thomas Ramos, the Toulouse No15 who played in Japan. His form this season has been unmissable – he heads the Top 14 try-scoring charts with five, is second for both most metres made and clean breaks, and third for defenders beaten.
When Montpellier have needed moments of magic this season, one tactic has been to move Bouthier to fly-half and let him run through defences. And yet, it wasn’t his attacking abilities that encouraged Galthie to give him his debut Test cap in the opening round of the Six Nations against France’s oldest rival.
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Eddie Jones and Owen Farrell after England’s 24-17 loss to France
Instead, the French coach explained: ”He is steady, efficient. His training with us confirmed his potential. We gave him the organisation and instructions. After that, it is up to him to play. He responded positively to all the situations one after the other up until now.”
While that clearance kick understandably took the headlines, it was those qualities that his coach highlighted that underscored Bouthier’s accomplished first performance.
CALM UNDER PRESSURE
In this fixture last year, England kicked France around like a rag doll. Despite the English giving clear notice of their ability and intent to do this the week before against a more experienced Irish back three, the French still selected a back three who seemed destined to struggle.
Yoann Huget, more commonly a wing, started at full-back while the wingers, Damian Penaud and Gael Fickou, were hugely talented players who had spent far more time at centre. The result was painful to watch.
The French back three could not get to grips, literally or metaphorically, with the kicks raining down on them. Jonny May had a hat-trick within 30 minutes and this sequence from a confused Huget typified France’s high ball and positional difficulties.
This year, however, Bouthier gave early notice of his ability to deal with England’s kicking game. Here, with his first touch of international rugby, he calmly calls it to prevent confusion about whose ball it is, takes it comfortably, calls for the mark, checks his team-mates are ready and then clears the ball downfield.
If England had been expecting to overwhelm the debutant with early pressure, they were disappointed. He continued throughout the game in a similar manner, accepting a bit of a hospital pass from Teddy Thomas and clearing after eight minutes and then taking another high ball soon after. He was equally calm when Antoine Dupont risked a pass to him in the in-goal area to clear French lines after 75 minutes.
Throughout Sunday’s game, it was noticeable how in-tune he was with his fellow backline players, comfortably swapping with both Dupont and Romain Ntamack to cover the backfield when necessary.
And yet what has people talking is that huge clearance kick. The debutant didn’t panic as his hooker shovelled the ball towards him to get it away from England. He just looked up and executed the perfect kick. No wonder the moment went viral.
Shaun Edwards’ impact on France’s defence, even in the short time he has been there, was immediately clear. Their phase defence improved, their tackles were (almost always) more committed, and their positioning far better. Most of all, they worked as a unit.
With Wales, Edwards used a defensively solid full-back to back up the defensive captain (Jamie Roberts and then Jonathan Davies). Bouthier performed that same role in support of defensive captain Fickou. Taking responsibility for clearing is a big part of that but so is communication and decision-making.
Throughout the game, the full-back could also be seen organising his defence, ordering his fellow backs to adjust the line.
After more than four minutes of England being camped in the French 22, he correctly judged that Jonathan Joseph was going for the try line rather than drawing the man and he bit in, bringing Joseph down in time for Virimi Vakatawa to add his weight and dislodge the ball, preventing a certain try.
Later, he managed to slow down George Kruis as he rampaged towards the line to try and get England within three points, allowing Ntamack to join him in the tackle and prevent the try.
Bouthier wasn’t always perfect. Like his fellow backs, he seemed caught off guard by May’s pace for England’s second try and will no doubt have felt Edwards’ wrath about such a defensive lapse (although he might also feel that Vincent Rattez, Ntamack and Thomas could have made a more concerted effort to spare his blushes).
He was also one of the players who stepped in to end the bout of afters that followed Charles Ollivon’s second try, reminding his team-mates of the stakes and the need to stay calm. His remonstrations had a positive effect, demonstrating the respect he has already acquired in camp.
So what else can we expect from Bouthier? What about that attacking flair? He only ran 19 metres with the ball against England. This try for Vannes gives some idea of his running ability:
While this try for Montpellier shows off his finishing prowess:
It isn’t difficult to see why Galthie took a risk, giving Bouthier his debut in such a high intensity match. He looked to be barely aware of the pressure, refusing to be awed or lured into over-playing in an attempt to show his talents.
He could regularly be seen supporting his team-mates at attacking rucks throughout the game, getting stuck in rather than hoping for the ball and an individual moment of glory.
Given that both Gregory Alldritt, the man of the match against England, and Demba Bamba, the exciting young tighthead prop, also spent time playing in the Pro D2, Galthie should perhaps see if he can dig up other gems in France’s second division.
A few more players with the steady attitude and ability of Bouthier would make a nice addition to a squad of fearless and talented youngsters.
WATCH: Catch up on all the highlights from round four of the Japanese Top League
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