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FEATURE Gregory Alldritt: 'I couldn't imagine doing things half-heartedly'

Gregory Alldritt: 'I couldn't imagine doing things half-heartedly'
4 months ago

I hopped back to France last year, taking in La Rochelle, Toulouse, Perpignan and Montpellier (and the obligatory food and wine detour to Les Terrasses de Larzac and St Remy de Provence), and made it my mission to visit some of the French team’s stars.

I use that descriptor tentatively because the vast majority of the French players are modest men from humble backgrounds, emanating from conservative rural towns and villages. They have an intense work ethic and they know that success only comes from commitment, focus and discipline. They don’t set out for stardom and fame.

These are men the best of whom do not seek the limelight, their modesty matched by their intelligence and steely determination to win. Of this generation, I haven’t met anyone who personifies these traits more obviously than Greg Alldritt.

If I were to compare him to les anciens, then he reminds me of players like Rives, Dubroca, Berbizier, Herrero (Andre), Pelous and Ibanez. These men are brilliant examples of captains who led by example, using their instinctive intelligence, bravery and composure to inspire others and to win tight matches. At 26, Alldritt is in fine company.

Jean-Pierre Rives
Fiery flanker Jean-Pierre Rives was an iconic captain of France in the late 1970s and early 80s (Photo STF/AFP via Getty Images)

After 35-plus years of working in business and 50-plus years of playing sport, I find it is the quiet leaders who impress me most and deliver the greatest results. They exhibit a powerful mixture of personal humility and indomitable will. The best leaders are still tough and incredibly ambitious, but their ambition is first and foremost for the cause, for the organisation or club and its purpose, not themselves. These leaders are often self-effacing and reserved. They are a triumph of both humility and fierce resolve.

When I interviewed Alldritt, I was immediately struck by these very characteristics. His youthfulness is deceptive. He may look like he drinks from the fountain of innocence, but Alldritt is mature beyond his years and is a very impressive young man. As a captain and key leader, the way he has dealt with success and failure in his early career is the mark of the man’s maturity, spirit and intelligence. He is going to be around for a long time.

I say to him: ‘Greg, you don’t need to compete at every ruck!’ But that isn’t the way he is made. When he smells blood, he goes for it. In that split second, he is both instinctive and calculating. You can’t stop him.

On the pitch, Alldritt is like a gleaming portrait of graft and craft, the rugged brush strokes intertwined with delicate touches. He may not have the pace of Penaud, the pyrotechnics of Dupont or the athleticism of Woki, but his whole is far greater than the sum of his parts, and his impact ripples way beyond this current side (I am sure there are as many young kids out there wanting to be the next Alldritt as there are Dupont). While Alldritt is no doubt focused on making marginal improvements, he is already close to the ultimate package and probably the world’s finest No. 8.

On the pitch, he excels at everything – his running, defence, ball control, jackalling and physicality. He rarely loses a collision and is hugely competitive at the ruck. His low-slung posture, balance and ample buttocks make him very hard to stop or move. When I met Shaun Edwards near Perpignan, he told me that Alldritt is such a competitor at the breakdown. “I say to him: ‘Greg, you don’t need to compete at every ruck!’ But that isn’t the way he is made. When he smells blood, he goes for it. In that split second, he is both instinctive and calculating. You can’t stop him.”

And then there is his deft touch; whether from a scrum or in contact, he has the ability to offload, skills he no doubt picked up when playing with Victor Vito. The French have a poetic expression for this: they call it dextérité gestuelle.

Off the pitch, his wisdom and fluency belie his age. Fluent in two languages, he finds the right words and tone, and is hugely admired by his team-mates. With players like Alldritt, Dupont, Ntamack, Atonio, Marchand, Fickou, Cros, Lucu and Ollivon, France are packed with leaders and will be strong contenders to win the Six Nations for many years to come, as well as the next World Cup in 2027 in Australia. They also have a conveyor belt of talent coming through, inspired by this current generation.

Antoine Dupont
Alldritt (left) will succeed Antoine Dupont as captain for the Six Nations while the scrum-half is away playing sevens (Photo Ramsey Cardy/Sportsfile via Getty Images)

I recently had a long chat to Alldritt’s dad, Terence. “Scott, Greg’s brother, is living in Edinburgh and playing for Stewarts-Melville. Scott calls me and tells me he’s just met the club chairman, a man called Finlay Calder! I couldn’t believe it – Finlay is a legend but he was a generation or two before Scott so he didn’t really know who he was or what he had achieved!”

Terence and Martine must be very proud parents; Scott lives and works in Edinburgh befriending Scotland’s greatest players, while Greg is central to the French team’s ambitions. Tom, his eldest son, is also a former player and now a successful businessman based in Agen.

The Alldritt blood line is very cosmopolitan. Terence was born in Kenya to an Irish dad and Danish mum, but he was raised in Scotland and South Africa. As a young Kenyan, he was taken out of his South African boarding school aged 12 and moved to Stirling. Although his family stayed in Scotland (they have cousins in Edinburgh and Gullane) Terence left aged 19, but his formative years were spent in Scotland so for him it is still home. Martine, Greg’s mum, was born in France of Italian origin, and she and Terence met in Rome. “When we had to choose where to live – Amsterdam or South West France – it was an easy choice”!

He has this engineering mindset that means he can work out how to build things, whether wooden chalets for the business or a rugby team on the pitch. He is a catalyst for success

Terence told me about Alldritt’s rugby development. “Greg always loved his rugby, first playing for Condom and then for Auch. We knew he was passionate but we didn’t know he was going to be this good. However, people like Julien Sarrante (who ran the Auch academy from 2010-18) had a big influence on him as a player and person. And he played with a group of very talented team-mates at Auch such as Pierre Bourgarit (La Rochelle), Nicolas Corato (Pau) and Paul Graou (Toulouse) who were in his year group, and he spent a year playing with Anthony Jelonch and Antoine Dupont, who were a year older. That is some team!

“Greg has always had a very strong work ethic and focus, even stubbornness. He also had this maturity that we noticed from an early age and he knew how to deliver. He could focus on the here and now but also look to the future and see what was required to succeed. He has this engineering mindset that means he can work out how to build things, whether wooden chalets for the business or a rugby team on the pitch. He is a catalyst for success.”

In conversation Alldritt’s modesty, intelligence and focus shine through. But so does his passion for the sport and all-round contentment.

Gregory Alldritt
Alldritt’s formidable work-rate and powerful running have made him a fixture in the France back row (Photo Emmanuel Dunand/ AFP via Getty Images)

“I am lucky enough to get up in the morning to play rugby. I don’t ask for anything more and I can’t hope for anything better. This is why I always run onto the field with a big smile. I have never allowed myself to complain or criticise. Gers is a very rural and humble départment, and when I was little, I used to work in the fields in the summer. I always think of the people who do this every day to live. I am living the dream and I appreciate it every day.

“My parents taught me that you should never make excuses. It’s too easy to blame a coach, a team-mate, whoever… What matters is how you take responsibility and deal with challenges. I have always been confident in my abilities and aware of what I had to do.

“It was my parents who did their best to give me this temperament. Mum worked at Airbus and Dad ran a lodge on a 10-hectare property. Since childhood, everything I had, I had to earn it. I had a very good childhood and I didn’t lack for anything, but if I needed pocket money, I had to work for it and there was always work to be done!

“Mum and Dad made me understand that nothing in life is free. When I played on the weekend, they were always there watching me. They came to make sure I had enough fire in my belly. They didn’t care about technique, but desire mattered a lot. I also wanted to emulate my elder brothers, Tom and Scott. All this has been brewing in me since I was little.”

When I was young, I had no ambition to become a professional rugby player. I couldn’t even imagine it. I played rugby because I loved it. And anyway, I was studying hard so I would have a career later.

In spite of his rugby success and all the media attention, Alldritt doesn’t seek the limelight. Riding around La Rochelle on his scooter, he gets away from the pressure by fishing, foraging around in the wonderful French food markets and cooking. He was happy to share some of his favourite spots with me.

So how did he move from Auch to the west coast of France, some way from the heart of rugby country?

“When I was young, I had no ambition to become a professional rugby player. I couldn’t even imagine it. I played rugby because I loved it. And anyway, I was studying hard so I would have a career later. I studied 90% and played 10% of the time. In my wildest dreams, I didn’t see myself playing in the Top 14, in the European Cup or with the French team.

“The turning point came when I had the opportunity to join La Rochelle. I moved away from family and friends and gave myself two years to try my luck. I said to myself: ‘This is it. No regrets. Work hard and maximise the opportunity.’ I couldn’t imagine doing things half-heartedly. In my head, I was very clear – I would give it 100%. Once I was in the professional world, I wanted to get to the highest level. It was when I arrived in La Rochelle that it all clicked because I was surrounded by brilliant people.

Gregory Alldritt
After losing the 2021 final to Toulouse, La Rochelle have won the last two Champions Cups, both against Leinster (Photo Stu Forster/Getty Images)

“Greg Patat played a big role in getting me to La Rochelle. Without him, I wouldn’t be here. Patrice (Collazo) was also key. He made it very clear that I would have to work hard and he didn’t make me any promises. He said to me: ‘I’m not promising that you’ll play, but if you work hard and are good enough, then you will play.’ I could relate to that because it reminded me of Auch and what Mum and Dad had taught me. Auch taught me and my mates to be men first and players second, meaning you respected your elders, the club and the shirt, you showed humility, built trust and worked hard. I found these same values in La Rochelle, only La Rochelle has more resources!

“Being surrounded by outstanding players and coaches like Victor (Vito), Tawera (Kerr-Barlow), Uini (Atonio), Levani (Botia), Patrice (Collazo) and Greg (Patat) made settling in very easy. Players like Victor brought a winning mentality and gave us confidence that we could win. With his All Black commitment and training methods, he also showed us how to go to the next level of precision and fitness. He also played with a smile and showed how you have to live in the moment because your career is short.”

Patat, Vito, Will Skelton, Jules Favre and Atonio have all told me how the club has developed over the last 15 years or so, with each coach bringing something that is accretive to the club. Collazo created a brotherhood, his Latin spirit bringing warmth, trust and a love for players’ families. Jono Gibbes brought detail, precision and physicality. And Ronan O’Gara has brought a champion’s mindset.

Alldritt has already been hugely successful (one Grand Slam, two European Champions Cups, 45 France caps) but you can feel his insatiable appetite and fierce resolve.

“I constantly need to improve and not rest on my laurels,” he says. “I always need a project or goal in mind, whether for rugby or the rest. I’m a very determined person. If you stay in your comfort zone, it’s the beginning of the end.”

In France, no one cares what your ‘Bronco’ scores are or how much you lift in the gym; what’s important is what you deliver on the pitch, and his output and quality are huge. He has such a strong work ethic, shows great humility and is a born leader, always helping to develop the younger guys.”

His mindset reminds me of another great former international, Sean Fitzpatrick, who constantly lived in fear of losing his international place. In his clipped Kiwi accent, he has told me many times: “I always trained and played like I was number two and not in the starting line-up. It kept me sharp and eliminated any complacency. I was never in the comfort zone.”

Ah, the dreaded comfort zone…For some of us, it’s the most desirable place to be. But in settling for comfort, there is a price to pay and it comes in the form of death of ambition and hope. It’s why so many talented sportsmen and women fail from the outset. Or aren’t able to keep going after initial success. But Alldritt and Fitzpatrick knew this from a young age and they knew how to keep it at bay.

Victor Vito was effusive about Alldritt’s insatiable thirst for learning and desire to win.

“He is so keen to learn and if he gets knocked down, he has the determination and self-belief to come back. I remember his first game for the 1st XV at La Rochelle. He came on as replacement and played second row. He missed a tackle, they scored and he was knocked down a peg or two by the coaches. We didn’t see him for a couple of weeks as he was sent back to the Espoirs.

“But then he came back, delivered and has gone on to captain his country. He may not be the lightest but he has a massive engine and delivers on the pitch. In France, no one cares what your ‘Bronco’ scores are or how much you lift in the gym; what’s important is what you deliver on the pitch, and his output and quality are huge. He has such a strong work ethic, shows great humility and is a born leader, always helping to develop the younger guys.”

Gregory Alldritt
Alldritt has won 45 caps since making his France debut in 2019 (Photo Gabriel Bouys/AFP via Getty Images)

In the European final in Dublin last May, we all saw this indomitable will and leadership. I couldn’t believe how La Rochelle came back from 17-0 down (after 12 minutes) and then 23-7 down to win the match. How did they pull things around?

“Above all, we had to stay calm and keep our confidence up,” Alldritt said. “I mean the confidence in each of us, in the group, the staff, the strategy… we had all of that.

“The funny thing was that just before the match, I said that whether we were losing or leading by 20-0, we must not deviate from the strategy. When we found ourselves under the posts, we looked into each other’s eyes and said: “It’s like we said before the match, now we just have to do it.”

Saying it is one thing. But doing it and getting your team-mates to buy into your conviction is another thing. Where did Alldritt learn the ability to communicate like that, to convey that confidence and belief?

If you want to interest the British in war, tell them it’s a sport. If you want to interest the French in a sport, tell them it’s a war.

“I have often been captain of youth teams. In Auch, I learned from those around me. And here, I was enriched by the presence of Victor Vito and Romain Sazy. They are very different players and I was able to draw a lot of things from them. Romain is someone with values close to mine, who has a lot of experience and knows how to manage a group; Victor had a very precise side, he gave us confidence and reassured his team-mates.

“I am quite clear: once you enter the field, there are no more emotions. In a way, we have to be intelligent machines, able to think rationally and calmly to find solutions. Of course, from time to time, positive emotions can still serve as fuel but it’s all about balance. You must not be too Latin and let yourself be overwhelmed by feelings and lose control. And if you’re completely cold, it can make you feel empty. You need desire and skill to win tough matches”.

Alldritt encapsulates a piece I wrote a few months ago called ‘Solving the French rugby paradox’.  Heart and emotion have always been central to their mentality and success. As Jean-Pierre Rives told me: “If you want to interest the British in war, tell them it’s a sport. If you want to interest the French in a sport, tell them it’s a war.”

The question is how do France harness their instincts to get the balance right between the competing forces of emotion and pragmatism? Because when they do, they are a beautiful sight to behold. And unstoppable. There is no other team in the world I would rather watch. And there is no other team that other teams would rather avoid.

Perhaps Alldritt’s Franco-Latin, Anglo-Saxon, African genes mean he is genetically engineered to do exactly that? Anyone who has played sport competitively knows how hard it can be to keep your composure in the heat of a battle when the pressure is intense. This is what makes leaders like Alldritt, Rives and Dubroca so unique.

Gregory Alldritt
Alldritt’s leadership and will to win have been a key part of La Rochelle’s success (Photo Pascal Guyot/AFP via Getty Images)

Transforming a performance on the pitch in the heat of a battle to win a final is extraordinary. But how do you pick a team up after it has dominated a final but lost by a brilliant try three minutes from time?

I am referring to last year’s Bouclier de Brennus Top 14 final last June, when Toulouse somehow snatched victory from the jaws of defeat and won it in the final minutes.

“We were bitterly disappointed and it was really hard to digest it over the following few days,” Alldritt recalled. “But we had to. It was so hard to lose like that, but we have also won two Champions Cups in the same way against Leinster. So we needed to see it from the other side too. We could have found loads of excuses but that is for losers. We made enough chances to win. We always have to challenge ourselves and use our learnings to progress.

“It was so hard but we have to watch Stade Toulousain lift the Bouclier de Brennus. We have etched that image into our memories so we use it as a painful memory for later. It motivates us and will us make us stronger.”

Before, we would celebrate winning the semi-finals. Then Ronan said: ‘Stop it. This is ridiculous. There’s no glory in losing whether it’s a quarter-final, semi-final or final.’ Ronan is obsessed with winning. Everywhere he goes, he wants to win.

I remember watching Alldritt’s composure and lucidity straight after the loss. He is ‘A Man for All Seasons’ (to borrow the title of Robert Bolt’s wonderful play). I can’t believe he is only 26 years old.

I often think about the impact of Ronan O’Gara on Alldritt’s desire to win. It has to be very significant because ‘ROG’ has so much experience of living these high-pressure moments.

I asked Alldritt about how the setbacks in the Champions Cup final in 2021, which La Rochelle lost 22-17 against Toulouse, changed him?

“These defeats and the fact that Ronan became manager have helped me become a winner, as we are now at La Rochelle. Before, we would celebrate winning the semi-finals. Then Ronan said: ‘Stop it. This is ridiculous. There’s no glory in losing whether it’s a quarter-final, semi-final or final.’ Ronan is obsessed with winning. Everywhere he goes, he wants to win.

“ROG has this confidence that cascades downwards. He has been there and done it so many times. It is that confidence that helps us to win tight matches. Now we play for titles, it’s different.”

Gregory Alldritt
Having won a Six Nations Grand Slam in 2022, Alldritt is hoping to lead France to another title this year (Photo Anne-Christine Poujoulat/AFP via Getty Images)

Spiritually and genetically, the Alldritt family is the Auld Alliance personified.

As I interviewed Alldritt, I listened to his lovely choral, southern French tones and intonation. I adore the accent du Midi that characterises the rugby-loving South West of France – it radiates warmth and friendship, heart and soul. Dressed in a blue T-shirt, Alldritt sat in front of his terracotta wall in the sunshine, looking relaxed and tanned. He could have been on holiday in Tuscany rather than at home in La Rochelle.

But alongside his Franco-Latin spirit, I could also detect the grit and granite of Caledonia. I can see why he is a winner.

When the French Six Nations squad was announced, Alldritt was named captain. Félicitations, Greg, you are a very impressive young man and I wish you every success.

Comments

2 Comments
A
Ace 141 days ago

Great player. I love watching him on the pitch. Can’t wait for 6N to start!

D
Diarmid 142 days ago

Brilliant article about one of the best, if not the best player in the French team at the moment.

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