For two hours at a time, twice a day, Thibaud Flament sits inside the hyperbaric chamber in a Toulouse hospital, oxygen mask strapped to his face and twice-broken metatarsal knitting under the heightened atmospheric strain.
No phones or computers are permitted in the room – the cranked-up pressure would destroy them. There is a screen-free tranquillity to the place, calm that engenders reflection. And at 23, Flament has a serious amount upon which to reflect, an extraordinary voyage from the fifth team at Loughborough University to one of Europe’s mightiest clubs via Argentina, Nottingham and Coventry.
“Since I was young, my dream was to play professionally,” the towering Toulouse forward tells RugbyPass. “Everything really was rugby-motivated. The only reason I wanted to go to England was to have a chance to play rugby.”
In his hours of clinical solitude, Flament has taken to reading. Autobiographies are his thing. He recently ploughed through the chronicles of James Haskell and Barack Obama – the only time you’re likely to read those two names in the same sentence – and is now immersed in the memoirs of a French special forces operative who shunned a life of crime and theft to join the marines.
“Before joining the army, he was robbing,” Flament says. “He was questioned by the police and told he had three options: the marines, prison or likely death.
“His motivation was to be a marine but he also wants to repay a debt for what he did when he was younger. The takeaway for me is that deep personal motivations are things that bring you to the top level.”
Rugby has always been Flament’s raison d’être. Born in Paris, he moved to Belgium with his parents aged three and wound up finishing school as a gangling 6’8 fly-half.
These days Flament is a majestic thoroughbred lock or back-row in open prairie, with an all-court game perfectly honed to fit the swashbuckling Toulouse blueprint. But in his late teens, Top 14 academies were never going to look at an oddly proportioned pivot from such a modest rugby country.
Instead, Flament enrolled at Loughborough University and England became his pathway to the elite game. He began at the foot of the totem pole in the university’s illustrious set-up.
“I started in the fifth team and went from there,” Flament says. “The programme was not as serious in the fifth team so I decided to start gymming a bit more.
“I had a really good time, and then the coaches of the first team came to see me and said they were interested in helping me improve and get to the first team by the end of my degree.
“The National One players in the top team were like demigods to me. I was so happy about that but I remember thinking that this was only the first step, and it’s only going to get harder and harder.”
Third year brought a placement in Argentina, where Flament played for Club Newman, the team that spawned the careers of Felipe Contepomi and Marcos Ayerza.
By his final year, he had well and truly cracked the first team. Wasps loaned some players out to the university side and by chance, Matt Everard, the club’s transition coach, was compelled by the giant specimen laying waste to National One.
“He saw me and asked the analyst to get some clips of me and put them together,” Flament says.
What an incredible journey from BUCs 4 to the Top 14. An outstanding example of the pathway at @LboroRugby #LboroRugbyFamily #WhereHistoryBegins
@lborouniversity@LboroSport https://t.co/5oIE0DU2KJ pic.twitter.com/jcLIPcERO6
— Loughborough Students RFC (@LboroRugby) November 27, 2020
“My coach at Loughborough called me to say he’d just had Wasps on the phone, they are keen to sign me, and am I interested? At the end of the call, I just put the phone down and screamed. It was so big for me. And I told my father and we had a really good moment together.
“Mostly it was a relief because at some points I would get really frustrated. In my final year, in the middle of exam period, I struggled to do everything right to become a professional player with gym and diet and training. All I wanted was to be in an environment where I could just do that.
“I did a few weeks in the academy then went on loan to Nottingham. When I trained with the first team, honestly, I think even up to now they were the most enjoyable sessions I’ve had. Just to be training with all these guys, big names and really good players, I felt on fire and so confident.
“I could see at the beginning where I was, where I had to be, and how big the gap was. It was so stimulating. At Loughborough, I enjoyed it, but I knew I was going to start at the weekend – I love being challenged and I was so happy to be back at the bottom of the pecking order and to have to make my way up.”
For all that Wasps – and especially Everard – gave him, Flament has always yearned to return to France. The pull of home is fierce and the longing to wear the blue jersey powerful.
In 15 Wasps appearances, he showed the explosive dynamism, marauding carries and slick handling to compel Toulouse to sign him.
“When we played against Bordeaux-Begles last year, I was travelling reserve and being in the stadium felt really special,” he says.
“The crowd were singing songs that I knew in French. It sounds silly but the ads at half-time were in French and I knew them because it’s the ads you always hear on TV in France. I knew the players there who played for France.
“Something was kicking me, it is not quite right, and to be able to join a French club, and even more so Toulouse, is amazing. I’m so happy.”
To date, owing to that pesky metatarsal, life in Toulouse has been deeply frustrating. Flament sees what awaits him, but cannot fully embrace it while his foot heals.
? “I graduated from university this summer, now it’s incredible to be in this environment and I’m learning a lot!”
@Thibaud_Flament reflects on his recent rise and game-time in @premrugby… pic.twitter.com/aJD11LqAwL
— Wasps Rugby (@WaspsRugby) November 6, 2019
In between injuries, he made his debut in a shellacking of Agen during November and was named in Top 14 teams of the week by the storied Midi Olympique newspaper and RugbyRama, the prolific French rugby news site. He thundered through Agen, playing in the second row alongside Joe Tekori, one of the majestic galacticos in this Toulouse squad.
“I told him afterwards, ‘Playing with you today was huge’,” Flament says. “Although Tekori smashes me at FIFA. He is one of the best in the squad and I’m pretty s**t.
“At Toulouse, you are surrounded with world-class players but also really, really good guys, always ready to give you a hand.
“And with the way they function together, the game plan suits the players. They just accelerate at certain points and it is so hard to defend. You don’t even have time to go around the ruck, the ball is already gone. They manage to just switch and increase the speed.”
The damaged foot is applying Flament’s brakes just now; there is more reflection than rucking. But as he pores over the tomes that are his hyperbaric companions, he can read safe in the knowledge that his own great tale has many chapters still unwritten.
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