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FEATURE The French star who could have been England’s saviour 

The French star who could have been England’s saviour 
10 months ago

Look away now if you’re an England fan, but arguably the most exciting young prospect in French rugby right is an Englishman. OK, so Émilien Gailleton might sound as English as Boeuf Bourguignon but the 20-year-old was born in England to an English mother. His grandmother, incidentally, is Scottish, meaning that Gailleton had the pick of three nations – but he went for France.

How unfair is that, at least if you’re English and wondering why it is that, twenty years after Will Greenwood was in his prime, England have been unable to produce another world-class centre.

As England’s recent World Cup warm-up matches against Wales have revealed all too gruesomely, Steve Borthwick’s side are desperately short of midfield creativity. The men in white look for contact, not space, while Gailleton is one of those old-fashioned threequarters who believes the best way to score tries is by running into space. 

And last season Gailleton – who turned 20 only last month – found a lot of space for Pau in the Top 14. He ended the season as the championship’s leading try scorer, with 14, four more than France wing Ethan Dumortier and six more than the deadly finishing duo of Alivereti Raka and Josua Tuisova. 

Emilien Gailleton
Emilien Gailleton has become a regular in the Top14 at the age of 20 (Photo by ROMAIN PERROCHEAU/Getty Images)

Gailleton was called into Fabien Galthie’s 42-man RWC training squad on the back of that strike rate, and he won his first cap in the 25-21 defeat to Scotland at the start of this month. He was one of the handful of French players who emerged from that defeat with credit, along with his great mate Louis Bielle-Biarrey, also just 20. The pair combined to send in Baptiste Couilloud for France’s opening try, an infusion of pace, vision and soft hands. What England wouldn’t give for such skill sets. “It comes naturally with Louis,” said Gailleton after the match. “We played that way at Under 20 level, it’s cool.” 

It is only six months ago that Gailleton and Bielle-Biarrey were ripping apart England in the U20 Six Nations, a chastening 42-7 thrashing at Bath that underlined the contrasting health of the two countries. France are blooming, at all levels, whereas England are in ill-health: their youngsters, their seniors and their clubs. 

It’s a force for us. He and I have been on the same trajectory for two or three years now. We know each other, we started together with the under-20s, and we get on very well.

Louis Bielle-Biarrey on his friendship with Émilien Gailleton

France’s vitality is embodied by Gailleton and Bielle-Biarrey, and it’s to the credit of Galthie that he had the confidence to name them – two of four newcomers – in his preliminary 42-man World Cup squad and then to give them a run at Murrayfield. The trust of a coach breeds self-belief in players, and the 20-year-olds played without fear against Scotland. “We were able to build up our confidence,” explained Gailleton. “We just had to play the way we know how, without putting too much pressure on ourselves. In that respect, I’m quite happy to have played with a free rein.” 

Bielle-Biarrey, who made his senior debut for Bordeaux in the 2021-22 season, got a page to himself in last month’s Midi Olympique. “It’s the insouciance that guides me,” he told the newspaper, a maxim that applies in equal measure to Gailleton. Asked about their friendship, Bielle-Biarrey, said: “It’s a force for us… He and I have been on the same trajectory for two or three years now. We know each other, we started together with the under-20s, and we get on very well.” 

Emilien Gailleton
Emilien Gailleton and Louis Bielle-Biarrey are part of a new wave of hugely talented players reared in France’s revered age-grade system (Photo LOU BENOIST/Getty Images)

Bielle-Biarrey admitted that he and Bielle-Biarrey sometimes chew the fat about their chance of making the cut when Galthie announces his final squad of 33 next week, and “that it would be great if one of us could be there”.  

Gailleton was omitted from the matchday squad that squeezed a narrow 30-27 victory from Scotland at the weekend while Bielle-Biarrey came off the bench in the final quarter. What to read into that? Is Gailleton an outside bet to make the final squad or, more likely, has Galthie already inked him in? 

Ironically, his value to France was underlined by his absence on Saturday as neither Gaël Fickou or Jonathan Danty played particularly well.  Eleven years ago Fickou had France raving when he announced himself with an audacious try for Toulouse against Leicester in the Champions Cup. He’s matured into a top-class centre, and he’s France’s defensive captain, but he’s obviously lost some of his searing pace over the years, and neither he or Danty are capable of accelerating through the best defensives. Offensively, they are too similar and predictable and that will be a problem for Galthie come the knockout stages of the tournament.  

Fickou and Danty are, of course, nailed on for spots in the final squad and if Gailleton does make it, it will be at the expense of either Yoram Moefana or Arthur Vincent.

He needs a sprinkling of stardust out wide and Gailleton may be the man to provide it. But there’s more to his game than just an eye for the try-line. He can defend, too, and against Scotland at Murrayfield the 6ft 1in and 14 stone Gailleton made ten tackles, more than any other French back. He also has versatility on his side, as does Bielle-Biarrey, being able to play in the centre or on the wing.   

Fickou and Danty are, of course, nailed on for spots in the final squad and if Gailleton does make it, it will be at the expense of either Yoram Moefana or Arthur Vincent.  

Gael Fickou
Jonathan Danty and Gael Fickou are expected to be the first-choice centre for Les Bleus at the World Cup (Photo by Jean Catuffe/Getty Images)

Vincent has been bedevilled by a knee injury in the last two years and was a surprise selection in Galthie’s initial squad. Taking a punt on his knee would be a bigger gamble than trusting in Gailleton’s youth. Moefana, meanwhile, has struggled in the last year to recapture the form that made him a key component of France’s 2022 Grand Slam squad.  

Gailleton also looks like a man who is as well-balanced off the field as he is on it. His formative years were spent at Agen, where his then coach, Olivier Campan, compared him to the legendary Philippe Sella, the club’s most famous player. Sella himself has enthused about Gailleton in the local press, declaring that “if the perfect player existed, he would look like him”.  

Gailleton had the misfortune to come of age at Agen as the club plummeted from the Top 14 to the ProD2 (between February 2020 and October 2021 Agen went 34 matches without a win) and so he did what any ambitious young man would, and left. Toulouse and Clermont expressed an interest in Gailleton at the time but he chose Pau mainly because of the presence of their manager, Sébastien Piqueronies.

Gailleton was three when his family moved from Croydon to Cahors. He’s since become a fully-fledged French rugby star, albeit one who speaks fluent English

Piqueronies is one of the new generation of French coaches, like Galthie a cerebral man, not an old school ranter and raver. A former PE teacher, Piqueronies worked his way through the national age-group set up from the Under 17s to the Under 20s, and it was under his guidance that the latter won back-to-back world titles in 2018 and 2019. Piqueronies knows how to nurture a precocious talent and, like Galthie, he is not afraid to throw them into the fray if he believes they have what it takes.

Gailleton was three when his family moved from Croydon to Cahors, a picturesque town in the deep south of France that is famous for its red wine and truffles. He’s since become a fully-fledged French rugby star, albeit one who speaks fluent English. 

But if only Gailleton had stayed put all those years ago England would have had at least one quality threequarter going into the World Cup.

Comments

4 Comments
P
Philippe 306 days ago

His father is French and he has always been French and English. The fact that he chooses the team of the country where he lives is simply logical. No debate whatsoever.

T
The Chassis Chisler 306 days ago

If he had of stayed in England he wouldn't be half the player he is

B
BigMaul 306 days ago

He’s a great talent, no doubt. But it would have made no difference had he decided to play for England. Borthwick wouldn’t have picked him. England aren’t lacking creativity because the talent doesn’t exist. They’re lacking creativity because the coaches value bulk over ability. They pick the wrong players. Consistently.

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