The news that Jonathan Danty is likely to miss France’s World Cup opener against New Zealand next Friday is a blow for the Bleus.
The 30-year-old suffered a minor hamstring injury in last weekend’s 41-17 thrashing of Aussies a game in which the French press named him man of the match, and it’s expected that he won’t be fit for the All Blacks.
Or at least it’s probable that France coach Fabien Galthié won’t risk Danty for fear he might aggravate the injury and miss the whole tournament.
That would be a disaster for France for Danty has become the lynchpin of their backline. No one can rival Antoine Dupont for star quality, but the La Rochelle centre has become indispensable to Galthié , hence his caution ahead of next week.
Danty was outstanding against the Aussies. He made 31 thundering metres in attack (including scoring a try) and he also turned over three Wallabies’ balls, the same number he pinched from the Fijis the previous week.
It’s that aspect of his game in particular that has made Danty so important to Galthié and his coaching staff. He is the master of the midfield turnover, a nightmare for opposition threequarters who know that if they caught in possession against France either Danty or that other supreme snaffler, hooker Julian Marchand, will swoop in an instant.
Danty, like Marchand, stands 5ft 11 and weighs 17 stone. Their low centre of gravity and immense strength mean once they’ve got their mitts on the ball it is very hard to prise it back.
It took Galthié , with no doubt a little help from defence coach Shaun Edwards, to spot how Danty could be so effective in the French midfield. For the player himself, the arrival of Galthié as head honcho after the 2019 World Cup has rejuvenated his career.
Up until that point, Danty’s international ambitions appeared over. First selected for France by Guy Noves when he replaced Philippe Saint-Andre after the debacle of the 2015 World Cup, Danty won three caps in the 2016 Six Nations. He made a further appearance that summer, on tour to Argentina, and was then, as they say, cast into the international wilderness for four and a half years.
That Danty returned to the Test arena was down to the misfortune of his then Stade Francais teammate, Julien Delbouis, who was forced to withdraw from the France squad against Italy in the 2020 Autumn Nations Cup. Galthié called up Danty, and three years on he’s the most influential French threequarter.
Two French journalists likened Danty to ‘Basta’. In truth, however, Danty has always been a superior player, quicker and more skilful, not to mention about two stone lighter.
In that time Danty has worked hard to improve technical aspects of his game – notably his distribution and his defence, adding a finesse to his fearsomely physically game – a process that was helped by a move to La Rochelle in July 2021. The reign of South African coach Heyneke Meyer at Stade Francais – described by the French media as ‘catastrophic’ – had done neither the confidence of the club or Danty much good. Joining Ronan O’Gara’s La Rochelle on the Atlantic coast was therefore an astute decision.
It was a wrench nonetheless for Danty to leave Paris, where he was born and where he had turned professional with Stade Francais in 2011. That same year Mathieu Bastareaud had left Stade for Toulon, and one or two French journalists likened Danty to ‘Basta’. In truth, however, Danty has always been a superior player, quicker and more skilful, not to mention about two stone lighter.
But it is only in recent years that the extent of Danty’s talent has been seen.
O’Gara, like Galthié , is an unorthodox and innovative coach, expert at coaxing out qualities from players that had been hitherto hidden. Danty’s arrival at La Rochelle has been a major factor in their becoming the powerhouse of European rugby, winning back to back Champions Cup titles in 2022 and 2023.
“He is a physically dominant player, selfless, very good in defence and very strong on the ground,” said Galthié of Danty, shortly after he had joined La Rochelle.
Danty has attributed much of his development in recent seasons to the presence of Shaun Edwards, a man whose attention to detail has played a large part in helping Danty fulfil his potential at a comparatively late stage in his professional career. “He is both energetic and meticulous,” said Danty of the Englishman last November. “His coaching is technical, one-on-one is important to him. He prepares video clips on our opponents with a lot of meticulous detail. More complete than at the club. These precise elements help us to better manage the emotion of the matches.”
When Edwards joined France, one of his first decisions was to nominate Gaël Fickou as the captain of the Bleus’ defence. It galvanised Fickou and also been a help to Danty. The pair played together in the midfield for three seasons at Stade Français.
But it’s also psychologically that Edwards has helped France, says Danty, imparting to the players in training a positive mental mind that has rubbed off on them. “His vigour and body language expressed exactly the attitude he asked us to have on the pitch.”
When Edwards joined France’s coaching staff in November 2019, one of his first decisions was to nominate Gaël Fickou as the captain of the Bleus’ defence. It has galvanised Fickou and also been a help to Danty. The pair played together in the midfield for three seasons at Stade Français, and Galthié has in the past talked about how ‘collective experience is important’.
It was integral to France’s triumph in the 2022 Six Nations, when they won their first championship (and Grand Slam) since 2010; the half backs were Antoine Dupont and Roman Ntamack, club colleagues at Toulouse, and the centre pairing was Fickou and Danty, old muckers at Stade Francais.
Ntamack is out of the World Cup with a knee injury and now Danty is a doubt for New Zealand. France, of course, have talented understudies; Bordeaux fly-half Matthieu Jalibert will deputise for Ntamack and either Arthur Vincent or Yoram Moefana will likely fill in for Danty if he does sit out the tournament opener.
Moefana and Vincent are fine players but neither can match the physicality of Danty, a player in the mould of some of those fine New Zealand centres such Tana Umaga and Ma’a Nonu. Not so much French flair, as French ferocity.