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FEATURE Late developer Lucu primed to step into Dupont limelight

Late developer Lucu primed to step into Dupont limelight
6 months ago

It will be a poignant Six Nations this year. Many absent friends, or enemies, depending on one’s allegiance. No Jonathan Sexton or Owen Farrell, or Stuart Hogg, and even Alun Wyn Jones has called it a day after 2,000 Tests or whatever it was.

Across the Channel, another great of the game will be sorely missed, although in the case of Antoine Dupont, he will be back in 2025. The France captain and scrum-half – Player of the Tournament in 2020, 2022 and 2023 – is on an international sabbatical for the next nine months.

Dupont will focus his considerable talents on Sevens, in the hope of helping France win a medal in the Paris Olympics in July. Apparently it was a decision taken without the consent of France coach Fabien Galthié, who will have to rebuild the morale of his squad following their World Cup disappointment without his most important player.

Fabien Galthie and Antoine Dupont
Fabien Galthié did not necessarily agree with Antoine Dupont’s decision to forsake the Six Nations for Sevens (Photo Seb Daly/Sportsfile via Getty Images)

Of course, one man’s sabbatical is another’s opportunity and the player most likely to deputise for Dupont is Bordeaux scrum-half Maxime Lucu. How he approaches the challenge will depend on whether he is a ‘glass half-full’ or ‘glass half-empty’ kind of chap. If it’s the latter, then Lucu will know he’s just keeping the jersey warm until the wee genius returns for the November Tests; if he has a more positive outlook, which by all accounts he does, Lucu will see Dupont’s absence as a wonderful chance to establish himself in the French starting line-up.

If the rumours are true and Dupont embarked on his Sevens jolly in the face of opposition from Galthié, then the coach – known for his free spirit – is likely to make Dupont work damned hard to get back into the team. How could he justify dropping Lucu if he plays for France the way he’s played for Bordeaux in the last year?

“Max is a man of exemplary uprightness and unfailing commitment, an ultra-competitor on the pitch but always available off it… I can’t see any faults in him.”

Unlike Dupont, who made his Test debut aged 19, Lucu was a late developer, winning his first cap against Georgia in 2021 in his 29th year. He’s collected a further 17 caps and has never lost a Test match. Had he come on as a replacement in the World Cup quarter-final defeat by South Africa last October, that winning streak would have been broken. But Galthié kept Dupont on for the full 80 minutes, a questionable decision given the scrum-half was clearly not 100% after fracturing his cheek in a pool match against Namibia.

Lucu had deputised for Dupont in France’s final pool match against Italy and was as tidy as ever. Solid in defence, with quick hands and a canny kicking game, Lucu has rarely let any of his teams down. He was profiled in Midi Olympique this week, under the headline ‘Mr Clean’. His club nickname is a nod to a washing powder brand that the bald-headed half-back used to promote. If ‘Mr Clean’ can be relied up to remove stubborn stains, then Lucu can be trusted to always give the best of himself on the pitch.

“For a club, Max is a joy,” said Laurent Marti, the president of Bordeaux. “He is a man of exemplary uprightness and unfailing commitment, an ultra-competitor on the pitch but always available off it… I can’t see any faults in him.”

Maxime Lucu
Lucu has helped lift Bordeaux into second place in the Top 14 (Photo Romain Perrocheau/AFP via Getty Images)

Marti had begun scouting for scrum-halves at the start of the 2018-19 season. He already had an accomplished nine in Baptiste Serin, but he sensed that he would probably be lured away. At the time Serin was battling with Dupont to be the starting scrum-half for France. Dupont won the duel and Serin proved Marti’s hunch right by signing for Toulon. So the Bordeaux president made his move on Lucu, persuading him to leave Biarritz and head 125 miles up the Atlantic coast.

Lucu arrived at the same time as Christophe Urios was appointed head coach of Bordeaux. He told Marti that he didn’t rate the scrum-half, but within a few weeks he’d revised his opinion. “That’s the story of his career,” according to Lucu’s elder brother Ximun, who played alongside his sibling at Biarritz. “For his first season at Biarritz, he was told that he would be the third-choice number nine. He said ‘we’ll see’. He set himself a personal challenge, and achieved it.”

The two men are gritty and bloody-minded, fighters both. Lucu has seen off Urios at Bordeaux and Serin from the French squad. Now his closest rival for the No.9 shirt in the absence of Dupont is Baptiste Couilloud of Lyon.

It was Galthié who gave Lucu his chance at international level. As a former Test scrum-half, he recognised something of himself in Lucu; they play a similar style, subservient to their fly-half rather than running the show à la Dupont. “I often read here or there that running with the ball is not my strong point, which is surely true” said Lucu recently. “But it’s something that I’m working on.”

And like Lucu, Galthié had to fight for every one of his 64 Test caps.  First capped in 1991, Galthié struggled for years to establish himself in the French XV; between 1993 and 1998 he made only 12 appearances, finally becoming first-choice during the 1999 World Cup.

The two men are gritty and bloody-minded, fighters both. Lucu has seen off Urios at Bordeaux (he was sacked in 2022) and Serin from the French squad. Now his closest rival for the No.9 shirt in the absence of Dupont is Baptiste Couilloud of Lyon.

Lucu has two distinct advantages: first, his goal-kicking – in the recent thrilling 40-35 win at Clermont, Lucu landed 20 points from the tee. Second, the fact his club fly-half is Matthieu Jalibert, who will be playing 10 for France in the Six Nations in the continued absence of Romain Ntamack, who is still recovering from the torn knee ligaments he sustained on the eve of the World Cup.

Maxime Lucu
Lucu’s club partnership with Matthieu Jalibert (left) has also served France well (Photo Christian Liewig – Corbis/Getty Images)

Jalibert – ‘Jalib’ to his team-mates – is Bordeaux’s first-choice kicker but if he’s injured or his confidence is down, Lucu steps up. “There have been times when Matthieu hasn’t felt good in the warm-up, and then Max takes over without any problem,” Lucu’s brother told Midi Olympique.

The mercurial Jalibert benefits from Lucu’s unflappable character, and also the accuracy of his service. “When he plays with ‘Jalib’, he knows that he has to concentrate above all on the speed with which the throws the ball out,” said Ximun Lucu of his brother.

It won’t faze Lucu that in the Six Nations he’ll be known as the bloke who’s filling in for Dupont, the man who’s keeping warm the shirt of the greatest player of his generation. Why waste time on such petty thoughts when there’s rugby’s most venerable tournament to savour?

Oh, there’ll be envy all right on 2 February when France host Ireland in Marseille in the opening match of the 2024 edition. It will be Dupont’s as he watches Lucu in the shirt he’ll have to work hard to win back.

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