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FEATURE Damian Penaud; France's free spirit who refuses to be tamed

Damian Penaud; France's free spirit who refuses to be tamed
1 month ago

France have had some maverick wingers in the professional era. Philippe Saint-Andre, the man they called ‘Piglet’, Philippe Bernat-Salles, aka the Silver Fox, the brilliant but tortured Christophe Dominici and the erratically gifted Teddy Thomas.

Damian Penaud is arguably the most unconventional of the lot. He’s certainly the most prolific. Since making his debut for France in 2017, the 27-year-old Penaud has scored 36 tries, two shy of the 38 that Serge Blanco accumulated between 1980 and 1991. The legendary full-back required 93 Tests to reach that mark; it’s taken Penaud just 53 internationals.

In awarding Penaud its Player of the Week award last week for his try and two assists in Bordeaux’s 34-14 hammering of La Rochelle, Midi Olympique described him as ‘one the greatest try-scoring machines in the history of French rugby’.

In eight seasons of club rugby, Penaud has scored 52 tries in the Top 14 and 20 in Europe. Most were touched down wearing the yellow of Clermont, but this season Penaud has been showcasing his try-scoring skills for Bordeaux; he made his debut for the Atlantic coast club in November, after the World Cup, and has subsequently scored 16 tries in fifteen matches (including four tries in the Champions Cup, a significant factor in the fact they sit third in the Top 14.

Damian Penaud
Damian Penaud is one of the world’s most exciting broken-field runners (Photo by JEFF PACHOUD/Getty Images)

Penaud first came to the attention of the French rugby public in 2015 when he was a member of the U20 squad that contested that age group’s World Cup. He scored two tries against England in their 30-18 group victory with Thomas Ramos (now of Toulouse and France) kicking the conversions. “He has enormous physical potential but technically he’s still a work in progress,” said the then U20 manager, Fabien Pelous of Penaud. “He has the potential to reach the highest level.”

Penaud played again for the U20 in 2016, this time in a squad that included Antoine Dupont. Two months separate the pair in age, and they are closely linked in other regards. Dupont was the 1101st player to represent France, Penaud the 1105th, and the latter has now won 53 caps to Dupont’s 52.

Where they have little in common is in character. Dupont is determined, disciplined, driven and sophisticated. Penaud is more laid back. These is reflected in their presence on social media platforms.

There is something refreshingly authentic about Penaud. He doesn’t seem to care what people think of him, rare in this social media age where most famous faces are fastidious about the image they project.

Penaud posts irregularly on Instagram but he’s evidently given up on X (Twitter as it was), having posted nothing to his 18. 8k followers since February 2023. Dupont has over a million followers on the two platforms and they are kept regularly updated on his glamorous life, which includes advertising campaigns for Louis Vutton and carrying the Olympic flame on its way towards Paris for this summer’s Games.

Penaud does make the occasional appearance on other people’s X accounts, often because he’s goofing around: making faces for the camera during team photoshoots, singing woefully out of tune to pop songs or using his false teeth to see if he’s won anything on a scratchcard.

There is something refreshingly authentic about Penaud. He doesn’t seem to care what people think of him, rare in this social media age where most famous faces are fastidious about the image they project.

Damian Penaud
Damian Penaud has quickly become a fan favourite with the Bordeaux fans after moving from Clermont (Photo ROMAIN PERROCHEAU/Getty Images)

Penaud carries this unconventionality on the pitch. With his socks rolled down and his languid running style, Penaud is deceptively quick, even if he lacks the blistering pace of the other Bordeaux winger, Louis Bielle-Biarrey. What Penaud has is offensive vision, the ability to size up in a split second what is on. That’s why he has so many tries and so many assists. He also has for a big man – he’s 6ft 3in and 15 ½ stone – twinkle toes.

One of the more eye-catching statistics from the 2023 international rugby season was that of tackle evasion. Third was New Zealand’s Will Jordan with 34%, second was Akaki Tabutsadze  of Georgia on 57% and the most elusive player was Penaud with 75%.

The unpredictability of Penaud’s running lines, and his upper-body power to fend off tacklers, explains this elusiveness. It’s instinctive, but it’s also a facet of his game that he’s been encouraged to hone since Fabien Galthie became coach after the 2019 RWC. In 2021 Galthie’s attack coach, Laurent Labit, described his philosophy, explaining that he wanted France’s wingers to “have total freedom. They can ‘unzone’ and come and look for balls’. Labit said this was a particular strength of Gabin Villière but it was ‘less obvious’ for Penaud, ‘who too often sticks to his line”.

He’s an athlete, a player who can get into good positions offensively and make the most of situations that aren’t totally clear-cut, but we’d like Damian to do more. On two turnover situations, instead of passing the ball, he moves around and loses our players.

Laurent Labit

Penaud was still transitioning in 2021 from centre – where he began his professional career – to wing. Positionally, he is now more savvy on the wing, at least offensively. The one weakness in his game is in defence, which the top teams have been known to exploit.

Penaud had a poor game against the All Blacks in last year’s RWC opener, at fault for the two tries scored by Mark Telea. Labit did not spare Penaud in his post-match analysis, saying there are ‘areas where he can improve in defence’.

He also implied that Penaud can be a little too maverick at times. “He’s an athlete, a player who can get into good positions offensively and make the most of situations that aren’t totally clear-cut, but we’d like Damian to do more. On two turnover situations, instead of passing the ball, he moves around and loses our players.”

In Labit’s estimation, Penaud was only fulfilling ‘70% of what he can do at international level. He knows that and he needs to work’.

Damian Penaud
Penaud is happy to engage with fans but has little interest in stage-managing his image (Photo by ANNE-CHRISTINE POUJOULAT/Getty Images)

It was a hard-nosed assessment of Penaud’s contribution, given his remarkable try-scoring rate, but Penaud is a man who needs to be pushed. In his early years at Clermont his nonchalance drove some of his more disciplined teammates to distraction. “He would arrive late to training, wearing flip-flops and with one eye still closed,” remembered Aurélien Rougerie. “He was ridiculously talented but he wasn’t making the most of his opportunity.”

He would irritate his fly-half, Camille Lopez, because of his inability to remember calls for backs’ moves, and according to another Clermont player, Yohan Beheregaray, Rougerie would sometimes play the part of the club ‘policeman’, pulling up Penaud when his standards fell short of what were expected.

Another characteristic that sets Penaud apart from his peers is that he rarely does interviews. He doesn’t crave the media spotlight, social or otherwise – he just wants to play rugby.

It’s to Galthie’s credit that hasn’t tried to rein in Penaud. On the contrary, he’s given him a greater licence to go looking for tries. He’ll probably always remain a little suspect defensively because it’s not in his nature to be organised and disciplined.

Thomas Lièvremont, who coached Penaud at Under-20 level in 2016, has said of him: ‘Damian is a free spirit…one has to allow him his liberty. He likes to have the ball, to look for the space. I can’t think of anyone to whom I can compare him. He’s a unique player.’

Another characteristic that sets Penaud apart from his peers is that he rarely does interviews. He doesn’t crave the media spotlight, social or otherwise – he just wants to play rugby.

Comments

1 Comment
F
Flatcoat 34 days ago

A brilliant winger..

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