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FEATURE 'The French believe that their team without Dupont is like Asterix without his magic potion'

'The French believe that their team without Dupont is like Asterix without his magic potion'
4 months ago

Antoine Dupont was awarded Midi Olympique’s ‘Oscar of the Week’ for his virtuoso performance against Bayonne on Saturday evening.

Twenty four hours after France had been walloped 38-17 by Ireland in Marseille – a record home defeat for the boys in blue against that opponent – Dupont orchestrated Toulouse’s victory. He did so playing fly-half, a reminder that this is a man who shines whatever the shirt on his back. The next shirt Dupont will wear is that of the French Sevens team as he embarks on his quest to win a medal in the Paris Olympics this year.

After the Toulouse game, Dupont was asked what he’d thought of France’s mauling in Marseille. “It was difficult to see the French team struggling,” he admitted. “We know how hard it is to have a numerical disadvantage at international level (a reference to the first-half red card shown to French lock Paul Willemse). The Irish were very well prepared, and the disadvantage was too great, I think. We put too many obstacles in our way.”

There are many in France who believe the biggest obstacle facing the French XV this season is adjusting to life without Dupont. His decision to take a six-month sabbatical from Test rugby, allegedly made without the blessing of head coach Fabien Galthié, has divided supporters.

Antoine Dupont
Antoine Dupont put in a typically mercurial performance playing at 10 for Toulouse before heading for Sevens (Photo by LIONEL BONAVENTURE/Getty Images)

Some wish him well, seeing it as a chance to bring some glory to French rugby on the global stage of the Olympic Games – as well as recharging his batteries after an intense 2023; but others feel that ‘Toto’ – Dupont’s nickname – has left his team-mates in the lurch, pursuing an Olympic ambition when he should be helping France recover from the bitter disappointment of losing to South Africa by a point in the World Cup quarter-final.

Would Dupont have made a difference on Friday if he and not Maxime Lucu had been playing scrum-half? The question was asked by Midi Olympique on Monday. Impossible to say, they concluded, adding: “What is an undeniable fact is that when Dupont plays, whatever the team, they are the better for it.”

France have a tradition of elevating one player above the rest of his team; they did it with Sébastien Chabal and with Frederic Michalak, and they also did it with Jonny Wilkinson at Toulon and Dan Carter during his time at Racing.

That view was echoed on Friday evening by Jérôme Thion, the former France second-row turned TV pundit: “I don’t think we’ve really grasped the impact that Antoine Dupont has on this team,” he reflected.

France have a tradition of elevating one player above the rest of his team; they did it with Sébastien Chabal and with Frederic Michalak, and they also did it with Jonny Wilkinson at Toulon and Dan Carter during his time at Racing. It’s ironic that France, which prides itself on its tradition of egalitarianism, should do this. And it’s not healthy.

Sebastien Chabal
The French have form for putting individuals on top of a pedestal, as they did with Sebastien Chabal (Photo by Mark Kolbe/Getty Images)

The French believe that their team without Dupont is like Asterix without his magic potion or Popeye without his spinach. The negativity and the pessimism of the fans and the media will inevitably seep into the squad. The players will tell the press that it hasn’t, but it has, that dark melancholic thought lurking at the back of their minds: without Antoine we’re not quite the same.

The possibility of sending out an SOS to Dupont to return to save Les Bleus’ pride was mooted by some of the French media, but when it was put to the FFR the answer was a categoric non. Contracts have been signed, sealed and delivered, and Dupont has committed himself to the Sevens squad. 

France must snap out of this ‘Dupont Derangement Syndrome’; he would not have made much of a difference in Marseille. Ireland dominated their hosts in every facet of the game, as they did, incidentally, 12 months earlier in Dublin when they trounced France 32-19. Dupont’s presence didn’t have much effect that day.

It doesn’t help that France, compared to the Irish players, have had precious little time to recover, physically or mentally, from the World Cup.

The principal reason France lost so heavily in Marseille was pinpointed by Imanol Harinordoquy: the bitter residue of that quarter-final loss to South Africa, shattering their dream of winning the World Cup in front of their home fans. “For me, the players haven’t come to terms with this defeat,” he said in an interview. “I’d hoped they’d be fresher mentally at the idea of getting together again, starting a new cycle and making a quick impression. But what I saw in the end were players without a solution, who quickly became disunited.”

It doesn’t help that France, compared to the Irish players, have had precious little time to recover, physically or mentally, from the World Cup. Ireland’s scrum-half Jamison Gibson-Park, for example, played seven matches for Leinster between the end of the RWC and the start of the Six Nations. Lucu, his French counterpart, has played 11 for Bordeaux. French props Uini Atonio and Cyril Baille have both made 10 appearances in that period for La Rochelle and Toulouse; Tadhg Furlong has turned out five times for Leinster, and Andrew Porter seven.

France
The French looked jaded against Ireland, a nod to their attritional Top 14 league (Photo By Ramsey CardyGetty Images)

The French squad looked jaded against Ireland. Dupont, in contrast, looked like a man freed from a heavy burden as he inspired Toulouse to victory against Bayonne. In the days before the start of the Six Nations, Lucu was asked what he thought of the hype that Dupont had to handle. ‘”I felt a bit sorry for Antoine,” he said. “Knowing him and working with him on a daily basis, I know that’s not his thing. He uses his media fame, and rightly so, but it’s not in his nature.”

Lucu said that in particular the media attention directed at Dupont during the World Cup, after he broke his cheekbone against Namibia in a pool game, had been “crazy”. The hype, he said, “put a lot of pressure on him. Far too much…I’m convinced it didn’t do him or the squad any favours. Everyone was wondering whether the French team would be able to play without ‘Toto’.”

Every player, every person, has a breaking point. It would be a tragedy for France, for rugby and above all, for Antoine Dupont, if he reached his prematurely and walked away from the sport.

They still are, but these people must back off and allow Dupont some breathing space. The death of Barry John at the weekend was a reminder that while some crave fame, others cower from it, exhausted and overwhelmed by the attention. John quit rugby when he was 27, one year older than Dupont now is.

“What began to depress me – and, in the end, to frighten me – was the intensifying public movement towards my own deification,” John later explained. “I began to scream inwardly. I don’t have much talent for coping with hyper-adulation and its suffocating side-effects. The pressures became more than I could stand.”

Every player, every person, has a breaking point. It would be a tragedy for France, for rugby and above all, for Antoine Dupont, if he reached his prematurely and walked away from the sport.

Comments

7 Comments
B
Bob Marler 138 days ago

This French storyline is just bizarre.

I really hope the French bounce back. The key will be to transcend the negativity and just get the f@ck on with it already. So what if du Pont is out.

You were “favourites” to win the WC just a few weeks ago!

T
Turlough 138 days ago

Without Dupont the out half needs to control the game more. Jaminet may not be the man.

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