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Dublin: -1°C Monday 1 March 2021

'In France they say: 'Il pue le rugby'... Dupont stinks of rugby'

Ireland are coming up against arguably the world’s form player in Antoine Dupont on Sunday.

France scrum-half Antoine Dupont.
France scrum-half Antoine Dupont.
Image: Poupart Julien/ABACA

ANTOINE DUPONT’S COACHES had a problem. The clearly talented youngster on their hands was fast becoming bored with the game and was considering a switch to football. Rugby was proving too easy. He needed something more. 

Worried about the prospect of losing such a precocious talent, they came up with a better idea. They plucked him out of the U8 grade and pitted him against the bigger, faster U10s. No joy. Dupont was still a level above, to the point where new rules requiring a minimum number of passes had to be introduced in order to stop him just running the length of the pitch anytime he got on the ball.

Franco Smith’s Italy could have done with a similar intervention last weekend. In Rome, Dupont was at his scintillating best with a try and four assists before being replaced midway through the second half. The TV cameras focused in on him as he slouched into his seat on the sideline. Arms folded, feet up, not a care in the world. Another game where he made it all look so easy.

You know you are doing something right when Aaron Smith is taking notes. France fullback Brice Dulin says the team have had to adapt to him as “he is one step ahead of us.” Prop Cyril Baille calls him ‘The Martian’ because “he comes from another planet.”  

This is the man Ireland need to try shackle in Dublin tomorrow. 

At just 24, Antoine ‘Toto’ Dupont is still in the infancy of his Test career following a steady rise through the French rugby ranks. Growing up in the small town of Castelnau-Magnoac, at the foot of the Pyrenees, Dupont was barely the size of a rugby ball when he took up the sport at the age of just four, and became a regular sight playing outside the family hotel with his favourite toy. 

Family and friends sensed he was gifted enough to pursue sport as a career. At the age of 14 he was playing 40 kilometres away from his home town at Auch, before earning his first big break in 2014. He was picked up by Castres, the 2013 Top14 champions, and it was here where Dupont really began to catch the eye.

Former Scotland backrow Johnnie Beattie was part of that Castres team, and says the player he first encountered as a teenager was remarkably similar to the one now ripping it up on the world stage.

“He was explosive, dynamic, could step off both feet, could bump, could fend, could chuck big French forwards out of the way,” says Beattie, who still lives in the south-west of France where he co-hosts Le French Rugby podcast.

“Physically he was a complete monster for a 5’8″ kid. I mean you see how he is on the field now, he has not changed at all.

johnnie-beattie-dejected Former Scotland international Johnnie Beattie played alongside a young Antoine Dupont at Castres. Source: James Crombie/INPHO

“Then mentally, lovely guy, smart, a real family, down-to-earth, normal bloke. He’s just a really, really good egg. Not afraid to take the mickey out of others, you get quite a lot of boys who come in from the Academy that are shy, but he was confident enough in himself that he would rip into people that had been at the club 10,12, 14 years and give as much as he got.”

The path to the starting team wasn’t easy with France scrum-half Rory Kockott in his way, but Dupont soon began to make his mark. He came off the bench to earn a European Cup debut at the age of 17 against Leinster – the first of many battles with the Irish provinces – and before long was helping Kockott manage the gruelling slog of Top14 rugby. If needed, in true French style he could effortlessly switch to out-half and prove just as effective.

“Even early on it was very, very clear that he was going to be special,” Beattie continues. 

“I remember in his first couple of games he sat down Julien Dupuy, a French legend in the Top14, he sat him on his backside. Then in his third or fourth start in the Top14 he played at 10 for us. In France they say; “il pue le rugby,” which means he stinks of rugby, and that was very much the case even as a young guy coming through, which at the time was rare, because there was so much emphasis placed on foreign talent, which is changing now.”

Dupont became a mainstay of the Castres team until, to some surprise, he left for pastures new in 2017. He was viewed as a particularly exciting signing in a neat summer’s work by Toulouse, which also saw All Black prop Charlie Faumuina and South Africa’s Cheslin Kolbe join the club. Two seasons later, the club were Top14 champions for the first time in seven years.  

The move to Toulouse coincided with his next steps as an international player. He had impressed at underage level with France but faced a senior team chock full of scrum-halves. He made his Six Nations debut at the age of 20 in 2017 and won his first French starts against New Zealand and South Africa at the Stade de France later that year. It would be over a year before he would wear the France No 9 again, with his four caps in 2018 all coming from the bench, replacing Maxime Machenaud, Baptiste Serin and Morgan Parra.

leinster-rugby-v-castres-olympique-european-champions-cup-pool-four-rds-arena A young Antoine Dupont tries to catch Leinster's Joey Carbery in 2016. Source: Niall Carson

Dupont had shown glimpses of his potential but continued to work hard behind the scenes, polishing up the less glamorous sides of his game. By the end of the 2019 Six Nations he had established himself as France’s first-choice scrum-half and hasn’t looked back. Of his last 17 caps, 16 have been starts.

Central to that is the license he has been given to play as part of the overhaul of the French team. At 24 he is already emerging as one of the leaders in Fabien Galthié’s youthful, exciting side, and has captained Toulouse.

“You can see now, his decision making, his kicking, his leadership and his defensive stuff, which wasn’t even a point of his game at 18 or 19, but the learning curve that he has gone on to add layers to his game has been outstanding,” Beattie says.

“The defensive work that led up to tries against Italy, like him shutting down a four-on-two on the outside channel, forcing an error, a dominant tackle on an outside back, then obviously the genius to finish it off with the skillset and the offload. But it’s all those little bits that he has added on over time that are even more impressive. Clearly he was going to be wonderful to a certain level, but the depths he’s gone to with the nuts and bolts he’s added has taken him to another level completely.”

Last year Dupont was named Six Nations Player of the Tournament, receiving almost half of the final votes. One week in to the current championship, he’s already the man to beat again. That’s why his name has never strayed too far from the conversation this week. 

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It is too simplistic to say that stopping Dupont stops France, but it’s certainly a good place to start.

“When you’ve got a nine like Dupont, if you can prevent the opposition getting that quick ball, prevent the offloads, take away the options in the way they want to attack, speed of ball, then someone like Dupont becomes less effective,” says Ireland defence coach Simon Easterby, who only has to look as far back as their most recent Six Nations meeting in October to be reminded of the damage he can do.

antoine-dupont Dupont runs in a try against Ireland last October. Source: Dave Winter/INPHO

“Dupont is world class, he makes France tick. They have got a number of very very, very good players in their ranks as well so we also have to really focus on what we can prevent on the day, but I think it is a team thing, it is a collective thing that allows us to negate France’s threat. 

“If we focus on him only then we offer space and opportunity to other players to get a strike on, but there is a combination of things that will allow him to not get the free run that he might get on other games from those playing against him.”

That ‘team effort’ element of defending Dupont will be crucial. 

“As a team, we will be looking at what we can do – that we are making sure that we are well set around the ruck, good spacing and that we are keeping an eye on him,” says Ireland flanker Josh van der Flier.

antoine-dupont Dupont is already a key leader in the France team. Source: James Crombie/INPHO

“I have played him maybe seven times now. I know what he can do. He is a world-class player. He is one of those players you have to be very, very aware of, especially around the ruck. But then you see him running those support lines, you have to be very aware of him away from the ball as well.”

Wing James Lowe, unsurprisingly, is also a fan.

“Dupont is a common theme into everything that goes well with this French side,” says Lowe. “He’s an amazing player. To me, the world’s best player at the moment… He’s the key man and someone that we have to try to limit his damage. He’s the one we’re going for.”

A nightmare to defend, but, one presumes, a joy to play with?

“Phenomenal,” says Beattie.

“The amount of games that he won single-handedly for us at Castres by producing a piece of magic. Players like that are gems. They are absolutely rare. Antoine is now clearly one of the best in the world, if not the best in the world. 

“But I think there’s also a lot to be said about the way that Toulouse have changed and their structures under Ugo Mola, and also the French side, who have been perennial underachievers for a decade. Now they’ve actually got a proper coaching staff, they defend properly, there are turnovers to be had, there’s unstructured, broken up play that appears, and Antoine is one of maybe seven or eight game-breakers that they can call upon. 

“If something is seen and there is a gap, they are gone. Which in the past wasn’t the case because as a team they weren’t performing or doing all the sort of off the ball, work-hard bits that other teams were doing, which meant that even though they had supremely talented athletes, when they came together and there was 15 of them on the pitch they were average. 

antoine-dupont-offloads-to-arthur-vincent-as-he-is-tackled-by-luca-sperandio Dupont's offload to assist Arthur Vincent against Italy. Source: Dave Winter/INPHO

“Now, they press hard, they turn over ball, there is space all over the pitch, and when you’ve got Teddy Thomas, Antoine Dupont, Gabin Villière, and they get half a step of space, they’re gone.

“So for Antoine, I think it’s exciting to be part of a team (that plays that way). The timing is perfect for him and this generation, because it’s the first time they’ve had a proper entourage and a proper coaching staff around them that allows them to flourish. 

“The French rugby public over here are absolutely delighted to see them back at a decent level and it’s fantastic for the tournament, and for French rugby in general.”   

Bernard Jackman, Murray Kinsella and Gavan Casey preview Ireland-France and give their thoughts on an eventful week from Cardiff onwards:

Source: The42 Rugby Weekly/SoundCloud

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