Picture credit: Gregorio Borgia

J’adore les bleus

Antoine Dupont makes the game look easy

This article is taken from the August-September 2023 issue of The Critic. To get the full magazine why not subscribe? Right now we’re offering five issues for just £10.

Fifty years ago last March, a restaurateur in the Hautes-Pyrénées region of France created a casserole of duck breast, bacon, potatoes and onions — le magret en cocotte — that earned the Hôtel Dupont a place in the Michelin guide and fame far beyond the small village of Castelnau-Magnoac.

Twenty-three years later, Pierre Dupont’s son, Jean, a pig farmer, helped to create something even more mouth-watering that may bring glory to the whole of France: his son, Antoine, the world’s best rugby player and the captain who may finally lead his country to lift the Webb Ellis Cup.

Rugby union’s World Cup starts in Paris on 8 September when the hosts play New Zealand, a daunting opener. Win or lose, and assuming no slips against Italy, Namibia and Uruguay, France would have a similarly tough quarter-final against either Ireland, who top the world rankings, South Africa, the defending world champions, or an improving Scotland, now ranked fifth.

It is a stinker of a draw, foolishly conducted way back in 2020 when form was irrelevant, and means only two of the best five teams right now can reach the semi-finals, but the bookmakers have France as the 11-4 favourites, not just because they are at home — they hosted the tournament in 2007, lost their first match to Argentina and finished fourth — but for what Dupont inspires in them.

Before the protests come from Ireland, not least my Castlebar-born father, I must note that the men in green won the Six Nations grand slam this year after beating France in Dublin and have an amazing squad. As an envious Englishman with little optimism for his own team, I would love to see a France-Ireland final, reprising the last two European Cup finals between La Rochelle and Leinster (both won, just, by the French). But there is something magical and electrifying about Dupont’s team. It is easy to admire Ireland, and hard not to adore France.

They ooze class in almost every position: the 23-stone prop Uini Atonio; the rampaging hooker Julien Marchand (so influential it now feels like they are singing his name near the end of the Marseillaise); Thibaud Flament, who was fly half in Loughborough University’s fifth XV until someone suggested that at 6ft 8in he might do better in the second row; the bruising back-row pair of Charles Ollivon and Grégory Alldritt; the fleet-footed backs Émile Ntamack and Damian Penaud, whose fathers played together for France in the 1990s; the marriage of brawn and brain in the centre that is Jonathan Danty and Gaël Fickou.

And binding them, a link between virtuosos and piano-shifters, is the 26-year-old captain, three times winner of the Six Nations player of the tournament, and the man who many now call, even if it seems blasphemous to the memory of the blessed Gareth Edwards, the greatest scrum half the sport has ever seen.

While other countries look to their fly half to run the game, the No 9 shirt has long been France’s most important and the south-west has often been its nursery. Fabien Galthié, the current national head coach, was a marvellous scrum half in the 1990s who grew up near Toulouse, where Dupont plays. 

Galthié took on the shirt from Pierre Berbizier, who started at Lannemezan, just down the road from Castelnau-Magnoac. Before him was Jacques Fouroux, who was given Napoleon’s nickname of le petit caporal and was born and died in Auch, Dupont’s first club.

One of the things most often said about Dupont is he makes the game look easy

One of the things most often said about Dupont is he makes the game look easy. He glides through opponents like  a greased piglet, shrugging off attempts to stop him. Like Weebles, those 1970s toys that wobbled but wouldn’t fall down, Dupont somehow keeps on his feet long enough to pop up a pass. And there is no one more talented at shadowing a team-mate’s run and being in the right place to take the offload and break the defence.

His speed of decision-making can leave opponents looking foolish. Not that Maro Itoje enjoyed it when Dupont shaped to kick, saw the 18-stone lock flying at him, coolly stepped inside and ran. As one wit on Twitter remarked: “Itoje didn’t just buy the dummy, he bought the extended warranty as well.”

Dupont’s pass can be very good, as seen in the bomb he fired half the width of the field to create a score for Penaud against Wales in March, and he excels in his ability to dink, chip and hoof off both feet. In France’s 53-10 defeat of England this year, he ran the ball out of his 22, tapped it over the defence with the outside of his right boot, then blasted it to the England line with his left.

He tackles like a ninth forward as well. Perhaps the moment of the Six Nations came near the end of the first half against Ireland, who were leading 19-16, when Mack Hansen received the ball two metres from France’s line, certain to score. Despite giving away 5cm in height, Dupont wrestled the wing to a standstill, halting him by willpower until support arrived to bundle Hansen into touch.

“I honestly don’t think that guy is human,” said Cheslin Kolbe, a member of South Africa’s World Cup-winning side in 2019 and a former Toulouse team-mate. “He can do anything you ask him.” All that is now required to secure his immortality is to lead France to a World Cup win on home soil. Like his pig-farmer father and chef grandfather, it’s time to bring home the bacon. 

Enjoying The Critic online? It's even better in print

Try five issues of Britain’s newest magazine for £10

Critic magazine cover