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RUGBYPASS+ Can Antoine Dupont arrest Aaron Smith's mantle in Paris?

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Can Antoine Dupont arrest Aaron Smith's mantle in Paris?
10 months ago

As recently as early November, the birth of Aaron Smith’s second-born child looked to have scuppered any chances of the most important player in the All Blacks arsenal facing off with the man challenging him for the position of best scrum-half in the world, Antoine Dupont.

The early arrival of his child, however, coupled with a head knock suffered by Brad Weber in New Zealand’s 47-9 win over Italy last weekend, saw Smith fly halfway around the world to link up with the national side for their final two games of their season.

With Smith only touching down in Dublin last Wednesday, it was unlikely the 32-year-old was ever going to line up against Ireland unless the All Blacks halfback stocks had taken a further blow. That didn’t transpire and TJ Perenara was asked to play 80 minutes in the 29-20 defeat, with Finlay Christie left to twiddle his thumbs on the bench.

Now, with just one game left to play for the season, Ian Foster and his fellow selectors need to make a call on who of their four fit halfbacks will feature against France in the final game of the tour.

Smith now has an extra week of training and preparation under his belt and while he won’t necessarily slot straight back into the No 9 jersey, some ample minutes off the bench would be the least Foster could offer the new father who had to say goodbye to his family and travel halfway across the globe to join the squad.

Aaron Smith has again linked up with the All Blacks after last featuring against the Wallabies earlier in the season. (Photo by Getty Images)

Unless fate decides otherwise, it means fans may finally be treated to the clash between arguably the number one and number two halfbacks the game has to offer.

South Africa’s Faf de Klerk rounds out the top three players in the position at present and while there will be critics who are adamantly in favour of one or the other, trying to separate the trio is an ostensibly hopeless exercise.

The global pandemic – and Smith’s decision to remain in New Zealand awaiting the birth of his child during this year’s Rugby Championship – has robbed the world of witnessing any of the three really going head-to-head since the All Blacks and Springboks faced off in the 2019 Rugby World Cup.

With Smith absent from the bulk of this season’s competition, and the Springboks absent from the entirety of last season’s, Saturday’s clash between Les Bleus and the All Blacks looms as the first opportunity in two years for two of the world’s heavyweight halfbacks (at least in terms of standing, if not stature) to face off in a match which could be season-defining for both nations.

The fixture in Paris will also mark Dupont’s first against big-league opposition from the Southern Hemisphere since he lined up against All Blacks in his run-on debut for France back in 2017, and then against the Springboks a week later.

The surprisingly robust scrum-half scored five tries during [the 2016 Under 20s World Championship] and although he couldn’t prevent his nation from falling to a lowly ninth-place finish, the major clubs back home had been reminded of the once in a generation talent that was Antoine Dupont.

Dupont, who just days ago turned 25, was earmarked for greatness from a young age.

At just 17 years old, Dupont was summoned onto Castres’ bench for their Champions Cup clash with Leinster – who’d been beaten in the previous season’s quarter-finals by eventual champions Toulon.

Two seasons of tough matches for Castres followed with the teenager managing just a handful of starts, including one in the No 10 jersey where he set up a memorable try against Oyonnax, before Dupont was named in France’s Under 20s side for the 2016 World Championship.

The surprisingly robust scrum-half scored five tries during that competition and although he couldn’t prevent his nation from falling to a lowly ninth-place finish, the major clubs back home had been reminded of the once in a generation talent that was Antoine Dupont. A few months following his return to club rugby, Toulouse announced that they had signed the wunderkind and the very next year, Dupont went on to make his test debut against Italy in the Six Nations.

It wasn’t until the All Blacks arrived on the scene in November of 2017 that Dupont was handed his first test start and while there wasn’t much the 24-year-old could do to stop the visitors amassing a handy 38-18 victory, he certainly didn’t look out of depth, even when lining up opposite Smith, who was, at that stage, indisputably the king of the halfbacks.

Antoine Dupont made his run-on debut for France against the All Blacks in 2017. (Photo by Jean Catuffe/Getty Images)

Fast forward a few years and the two scrum-halves could once again do battle in Paris.

In Smith, the All Blacks have a man that’s perhaps the best passer of the ball that world rugby has ever seen. While he still boasts an excellent running and support game, it’s how Smith is able to unleash the NZ backline that wins him most of his plaudits.

With TJ Perenara operating in the No 9 jersey, the All Blacks have at their disposal a talented ball-player who’s just as competent defending against forwards as he is running in open spaces, but he still lags behind Smith in the distribution stakes.

Dupont embodies the best skills of both Smith and Perenara. He’s aggressive and combative when it comes to on-field confrontations, but he also excels at avoiding contact altogether and weaving his magic around the park without having to rely on his unquestionable physicality.

His core running, passing and kicking games are up there with the best and the 25-year-old playmaker is just as good at setting up tries for his teammates as he is going on his own and breaking tackles, dropping the ball onto his boot and then snaffling up the pill to dive over the line – it’s something he’s achieved on many an occasion for Les Bleus over the past two years, which has seen him nominated for World Rugby Player of the Year for 2021.

The challenge for Dupont now is to replicate against the Southern Hemisphere powerhouses all that he’s accomplished against Six Nations opposition in recent seasons.

It’s not just the powerbrokers that have taken notice of Dupont’s talents, however. Smith himself has suggested more than once that the French No 9 is now the best scrum-half in the world.

“This guy is on another level!” Smith said of Dupont on social media following France’s opening round win over Italy in this year’s Six Nations competition. “No one is near him [at the moment].

“He’s the point of difference for both his club and country. He’s helping me look at parts of my game to improve.”

The challenge for Dupont now is to replicate against the Southern Hemisphere powerhouses all that he’s accomplished against Six Nations opposition in recent seasons.

Brian O’Driscoll was always a wizard throughout February and March for Ireland but for some reason, whenever the All Blacks, Springboks or Wallabies came to town, the maverick midfielder seemed to go into his shell and played within himself.

Despite being one of the most talented players to ever grace the game, Bryan O’Driscoll was rarely at his best against the All Blacks. (Photo by Photosport)

Although the balance of powers in world rugby has shifted considerably since the days of O’Driscoll, the litmus test for Dupont over the coming seasons will still be how he performs in the cross-Hemisphere contests, culminating in the 2023 Rugby World Cup in France.

After falling to Ireland in Dublin, the All Blacks will be looking to bounce back strongly against Les Blues, as they always have done following defeat.

Dupont’s France have made a name for themselves as a thrill-seeking team boasting immense potential, but they’ve yet to claim any titles or perform to the consistently high standard they’ve shown flashes of since Fabien Galthie took over ahead of the 2019 World Cup.

An All Blacks scalp could set France on the path to their first-ever World Cup title in two years’ time and give the team something to crow about after coming within a whisker of claiming their first Six Nations championship in over a decade.

A win for the All Blacks, meanwhile, would leave Ian Foster with a 13-2 record in his first full season in charge which, despite some questions remaining about his standing as head coach, is a hard record to argue with.

Antoine Dupont and his teammates have an immeasurably tough challenge ahead of themselves this weekend but if the young No 9 can showcase his wide bag of tricks, Les Bleus could be on the way to their first victory over the All Blacks in 12 years as well as a longer-term path to glory.

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