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FEATURE Will the Dupont palaver and limited opposition leave France undercooked for the knockouts?

Will the Dupont palaver and limited opposition leave France undercooked for the knockouts?
8 months ago

The last fortnight must have been a little demoralising for Baptiste Couilloud and Maxime Lucu. The two scrum-halves have won 32 caps between them and never let France down in those internationals; but, Mon Dieu, no red-blooded French supporter wants to see either wear the No 9 shirt later this month.

As the headline of the editorial in last Friday’s Midi Olympique put it: ‘Sixty million doctors’. Every bistro and boulangerie has been full of men and women airing their advice on whether Dupont will be seen again in the Rugby World Cup. A month ago if you’d asked the French what was a maxillo-zygomatic they would likely have replied he was a villain in a Harry Potter book. Now every Madame and Monsieur will explain at length it’s a bone which constitutes a prominent and important position in the facial skeleton, and it’s what Dupont fractured when he clashed heads with Namibian captain Johan Deysel.

Ever since the whole of France has been on tenterhooks; for English football fans of a certain age, it’s reminiscent of the hysteria which preceded the 2002 World Cup after David Beckham broke a bone in his foot.

Antoine Dupont
Totemic France captain Antoine Dupont was injured in his side’s Rugby World Cup rout of Namibia. (Photo by NICOLAS TUCAT/AFP via Getty Images)

“Metatarsal bone injuries will never be quite the same again,” reflected the British Medical Journal at the time. “The fracture of the second metatarsal in the left foot of the England football team’s captain, David Beckham, has dragged the three-inch-long bone from relative obscurity—between the tarsal and the phalanges—into tabloid headlines.”

Ditto, the maxillo-zygomatic has never enjoyed such fame in France, and the good news is that in Dupont’s case it has responded well to treatment and on Sunday he resumed training. He won’t play against Italy on Friday evening, but frankly the French don’t need him. The Italians were horrendous in their 96-17 hammering by New Zealand; it was a return to the bad old days of the late 1990s when they were thumped 101-0 by the Springboks and 101-3 by the All Blacks.

It is inconceivable Italy will play as badly – or more meekly – against France, but the psychological wounds of that humiliation will hamper the Azzurri for a long time to come. Hence the Bleus have no need to risk their prized asset.

The hullabaloo surrounding the state of Dupont’s cheekbone has been a little insulting to the rest of the French squad, a point made this week by Christophe Laussucq, Lucu’s coach at Bordeaux, who said if he had been in the scrum-half’s boots he would have been ‘offended’ by the implication he’s not capable of deputising.

The Dupont saga has rather distracted France from another absence they’ve experienced since the tournament began: meaningful opposition.

France managed to overcome Dupont’s absence last November, when he was sent off eight minutes into the second half against South Africa. The world champs edged ahead at one point but back came France – with Lucu at nine – in the final quarter to win 30-26.

France have plenty of leaders without Dupont: Charles Ollivon, who was Fabien Galthie’s initial pick as captain; Anthony Jelonch, who led an inexperienced team so inspirationally during a three-Test series in Australia in 2021; Gael Fickou, the respected defence captain, and Julien Marchand, who captained Dupont and the rest of the Toulouse team to victory in the 2021 Top 14 Final.

France can overcome his absence as a captain, but it’s true that as a scrum-half his skill set is unique. The former France No 8 Imanol Harinordoquy was asked by Midi Olympique if he sympathised with poor Lucu and Couilloud, and the lack of respect that they’ve been accorded.

“Yes, of course,” he replied. “I know Maxime and I know he’s a winner.”

Nonetheless, mused Harinordoquy, there’s good and then there’s Dupont. He asked Midi if they’d seen Dupont’s inch-perfect kick with his left foot against Namibia which fell into the grateful arms of Louis Bielle-Biarrey. “It was magnificent….who else can do that?”

Imanol Harinordoquy wore a mask when Biarritz took on Munster in the 2010 Heineken Cup semi-final. (Photo by David Rogers/Getty Images)

It’s likely Dupont will be back for the quarter-final, and, Harinordoquy hopes, without the sort of mask he wore for Biarritz in the 2010 Heineken Cup semi-final after suffering a similar facial injury. It was constructed of foam and strapping and, said Harinordoquy,  made him look like an extra from Gladiator. “I couldn’t see a thing behind it,” he reminisced of the match against Munster. “If I’d played scrum-half, my fly-half wouldn’t have received any good ball.”

The truth is the Dupont saga has rather distracted France from another absence they’ve experienced since the tournament began: meaningful opposition. The same can be said for New Zealand. It’s nearly a month since the pair clashed in the tournament opener and since then neither side has been tested. No-one can question the pluck of Uruguay or Namibia but neither they, nor Italy, have stretched France and New Zealand.

France have invested so much emotion and energy in Dupont that one can’t help wonder if they haven’t overinvested.

Contrast the lop-sidedness of pool A with the blood and thunder in pool B where Scotland, Ireland, South Africa and Tonga have been knocking seven bells out of each other with Romania offering the only light relief.

If the form book holds for the final round of matches, France will play the Springboks in the quarter-finals and Ireland will take on New Zealand. It will be a marked increase in intensity for France and the All Blacks, but not for their opponents who are now battle hardened.

Something similar happened to France in the 2003 World Cup. They cruised through the group stage playing sumptuous rugby: 60 points against Fiji, 50 against the Scots and the Japanese and 40 against the USA. Then they ran Ireland ragged in the quarters, winning 43-21, to set up a semi against England, who’d wrestled their way into the last four with hard-fought wins over South Africa, Samoa and Wales.

As the Guardian wrote on the eve of the match: “It is ages since England went into a big game as underdogs, which is why Sunday’s World Cup semi-final is Clive Woodward’s moment of truth. His team relish the role of frontrunners but, all of a sudden, their aura of invincibility is shrinking.”

Dupont has returned to training with France and is expected to be fit for the quarter-finals. (Photo by ANNE-CHRISTINE POUJOULAT/AFP via Getty Images)

But France were undone by a combination of factors: the Sydney rain, the English pragmatism and their unpreparedness for a match of such fierce close-quarter intensity.

France have invested so much emotion and energy in Dupont that one can’t help wonder if they haven’t overinvested. If, as seems probable at the time of writing, he is passed fit for the quarter-final, he’ll run out onto the Stade de France with the weight of his country’s expectations on his broad shoulders. Allez, Antoine is playing, victory is ours!

For those too young to remember the 2002 World Cup, David Beckham’s metatarsal did mend and he travelled to Japan. He was okay in the group stage although it was evident he lacked match sharpness. In the quarter-final against Brazil, England were winning 1-0 when Beckham jumped out of a tackle to protect his fragile foot. Brazil swept up the field and scored, and went on to win 2-1.

Fairytales are for books, and perhaps not always bones.


Jérémie 257 days ago

A couple of "journalists" do not represent a whole population :) But it's a true I've never met so much doctors in my life than in the last weeks 😁

BR2B 257 days ago

The Suppnt hype is massively entertained by media including here on RP.
Reducing the French team to DuPont is a massive underestimate, even though DuPont contribution remains unique

pof 258 days ago

Dupont is exceptional, and there aren't many individual players whose loss would affect their team more, but even so - I would not assume that France don't have the capacity to be excellent without him. If anything, Lucu and Couilloud will have massive points to prove, and a very strong team around them to help do that.

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