Being Charles Ollivon in the last fifteen months can’t have been easy. First he suffered a serious knee injury at the end of the 2021-22 season playing for Toulon, and then he saw Antoine Dupont captain France to their first Grand Slam in 12 years.
Dupont is unquestionably the ‘face’ of the 2023 World Cup, as far as the French hosts are concerned. And that face is everywhere: on magazines covers, billboards, popping up on TV adverts and not forgetting the endorsements, from Land Rover to Adidas to a certain Swiss watchmaker.
When France last hosted rugby’s showpiece event in 2007 it was Sébastien Chabal whose face – or more specifically, beard – promoted the tournament. But he was never really more than a gimmick, a player who couldn’t even nail down a spot in France’s starting XV.
Dupont is the real deal. He’s a once-in-a-generation talent, winner of the Six Nations’ player of the tournament in 2020 and 2022, and selected as World Rugby’s Player of the Year in 2021. What sets Dupont apart from other talented and talked-up French backs of recent years – the likes of ClémentPoitrenaud, Frédéric Michalak,François Trinh-Duc and Wesley Fofana – is his temperament. Nothing seems to faze Dupont, neither the pressure of expectation or the burden of captaincy. He takes everything in his stride.
Ollivon has a similar mental strength. Four years older than Dupont, the loose forward has grown up under an intense media spotlight. Back in 2014 he was labelled ‘The Phenomenon’ by Midi Olympique while still an uncapped 21-year-old playing for Bayonne. I interviewed Ollivon not long after that article, and referenced the headline and whether it brought with it any additional pressure. ‘A little, it’s something new for me,’ he replied. ‘I’m still young and it’s happened very quickly. A few months ago I was a nobody and now people want to know all about me.’
Ollivon has handled the pressure in the subsequent years. He was Fabien Galthié’s first captain when he became France’s head coach after the 2019 World Cup; in his first match as skipper Ollivon scored two tries as France beat England 24-17 in the 2020 Six Nations.
The knee injury that Ollivon suffered in June 2021, a rupture of the ligaments, sidelined him for nine months and it wasn’t until March this year that he was back in action for Toulon. William Servat, the forwards’ coach of the national team, was delighted to see him return: “Charles is our captain, he means a lot to us,” he told French TV. “We have regular phone calls with him and I spoke to him before the game.”
But a week later France beat England to win the Grand Slam, and the only name on the nation’s lips was Antoine Dupont. It still is. Last week’s edition of Midi Olympique ran a special feature on the 2023 RWC, with the tournament exactly a year away (the opening match is France vs New Zealand on September 8), and the newspaper described Dupont as the tournament’s unofficial Ambassador: “Whatever happens, if he’s the captain of France or not, Dupont will be the centre of attention before, during – and we hope – after the next World Cup,” exclaimed Midi Olympique.
The paper also carried an interview with Fabien Galthié in which he was asked about the captaincy. Galthié said that later this month he and his coaching staff will call the senior players to individual interviews – Julien Marchand, Greig Alldritt, Anthony Jelonch, Charles Ollivon, Antoine Dupont and Gael Fickou – where the captaincy issue will be discussed. A decision will probably be announced in October. “It’s not a problem for me,” said Galthié. “It’s a really interesting work that we will develop with the senior players.”
A captain should always embody something and Antoine Dupont embodies winning. It’s important for his teammates. It gives the captain legitimacy.
Imanol Harinordoquy, former French legend
Galthié is an unconventional man and there remains the possibility that he could spring a surprise and name as his captain someone such as Marchand, the Toulouse hooker and captain.
The likelihood, however, is that it will be a straight shootout between Dupont and Ollivon and the prospect is titillating the French rugby media. A roundtable discussion between two Midi Olympique journalists and the former France No8 Imanol Harinordoquy concluded that it should be Dupont. “A captain should always embody something and Antoine Dupont embodies winning,” said Harinordoquy. “It’s important for his teammates. It gives the captain legitimacy.”
The Toulouse lock Thibaud Flament made his debut for France last November in a side captained by Dupont, and it wasn’t until the summer tour to Japan that he made for the first time the acquaintance of Ollivon, captain in the absence of the rested Dupont. “He’s a great guy, he knows how to talk to the squad,” said Flament of Ollivon. “He knows what to say, both tactically and on a human level.”
Flamant was careful not to be seen as anything other than impartial in the discussion. “He is very, very good, just like Antoine Dupont is very good,” he continued. “Antoine and Charles are different, it’s a different style…we’re really lucky to have these two.”
There are factors that weigh in Dupont’s favour. Knee ligament damage against Ireland in the 2018 Six Nations kept him out of action for six months, but he’s since avoided any serious injury, which can’t be said of Ollivon. He was rarely seen in 2017 and 2018 because of two serious shoulder injuries, and a headline in L’Equipe in September 2018 dared to ask the question: ‘The end of Ollivon’s career?’.
Ollivon returned and for two seasons proved the pessimists wrong by remaining free from injury. “It’s been a struggle but I haven’t thought of quitting,” he said on his return to the French team in 2020. The knee injury was another cruel blow but back he’s come back again, and has looked sharp in his two Top 14 matches this season.
Dupont on the other hand is such a rare talent that even when he’s not on top of his game he is still better than his rivals. When he is at his best, as he was on Sunday night when Toulouse hammered Toulon 28-8, he is sensational
Nonetheless there must be in Galthié’s head the nagging worry that Ollivon is one of those cursed players who seems to attract serious injury.
Furthermore, such is France’s strength in depth in the back row that Ollivon will have to fight hard to once more establish himself in the starting XV. Anthony Jelonch, Grégory Alldritt, François Cros, Dylan Cretin and Yoan Tanga have all proved themselves top quality players in the absence of Ollivon.
Dupont on the other hand is such a rare talent that even when he’s not on top of his game he is still better than his rivals. When he is at his best, as he was on Sunday night when Toulouse hammered Toulon 28-8, he is sensational.
At the start of this year it was disclosed that Dupont had cut back on his off-field commitments because of the sheer number of brands wanting a piece of him. Yes, he’s the best player in the French XV but it’s more than that; he has an engaging humility, the boy from the country who remains charmingly unaffected by all the hype. As Midi Olympique put it: ‘The different brands chase him, the TV studios welcome him with pleasure and his fame has therefore spread far beyond the boundaries of just rugby.’
In a sense Dupont is fortunate that between now and the end of the year, a great deal of media focus will be on the French football squad as they prepare to defend their World Cup title in Qatar in November. But come January, French rugby will be subjected to a scrutiny the like of which it has never experienced. For there is genuine belief in France that destiny beckons in 2023.
Handing the captaincy back to Ollivon could be an astute decision by Galthié. In an instant some of the pressure and much of the responsibility would be removed from the shoulders of Dupont: press conferences, sponsors’ meet and greets and so on.
Whoever gets the nod will be expected by the French public to raise the Webb Ellis cup to the heavens on the evening of October 28 2023
The captaincy question was put to Galthié just days after France won the Grand Slam in March. “Do we have to talk about it now?” he replied wearily. Yes, cried the media in unison. “We don’t know, we’ll see,” said Galthié. “We’ll tell you about it when we’ve talked about it between us. We want to be transparent and to share, but there is something here that concerns men and respect. We will take the time to answer you in a few months”.
The time is nearly up. It won’t be long before French rugby will have the answer to the question that has been debated in bars and bistros throughout the country. Will it be Dupont or will it be Ollivon?
Whoever gets the nod will be expected by the French public to raise the Webb Ellis cup to the heavens on the evening of October 28 2023.
JOIN RUGBYPASS+ NOW TO CONTINUE READING THIS ARTICLE.
Access our premium content area bringing you the highest quality rugby content from award-winning journalists, opinionated pundits, leading coaches and the biggest stars in the game. It’s FREE to join!