By Julien Pretot
PARIS (Reuters) – France have been tinkering with their halfback pairings for years but in Antoine Dupont they seem to have unearthed a scrumhalf capable of leading the charge at the World Cup.
The 22-year-old’s game-breaking abilities and self-confidence will boost Les Bleus’ chances in Japan, with the Toulouse number nine establishing himself as first choice for club and country.
“He’s a phenomenon, he’s as fit as a bull,” Toulouse team mate Jerome Kaino said of Dupont, who turned professional with Castres Olympique in November 2014, two months before scoring a cheeky try in a European Cup match against Harlequins.
He led a rampant Toulouse to the Top 14 title this season, the side scoring a league-best 102 tries along the way.
As well as bulldozing his way through defences Dupont is quick of step and thought, his solo try against Italy in a World Cup warmup showing the extent of his talent.
“He is unique, out of the ordinary,” said coach Jacques Brunel.
Still a sports management student, Dupont has learned quickly and has become Brunel’s first choice with the experienced Morgan Parra left at home.
His selection for the World Cup caps a remarkable comeback after he was sidelined for eight months with a knee injury picked up during the 2018 Six Nations.
As well as scrumhalf he can also play as a number 10, where Toulouse coach Ugo Mola had him several times this season.
“It’s an asset because it gives the staff options,” said Dupont.
“I think this helped me blossom. When you’re (playing) nine, you know what you like in a 10 and vice versa. This makes me a better scrumhalf.”
Dupont scored 11 tries this season, a rare feat for a scrumhalf, which shows he has developed a killer instinct, a quality France have been lacking in recent months.
He only has 17 caps to his name but the French gem knows he will benefit from the experience of the more seasoned players in the squad for Japan, where France face a potentially decisive opener against Argentina on Sept. 21.
“It is important that we have those experienced players with us, they can help us deal with situations we have never faced before,” he said.
Even before a ball has been kicked in Japan, Dupont has one eye on the 2023 World Cup, which France will host.
“At every World Cup you prepare for the following one because several players will go into international retirement,” he said.
While three-times runnersup France are desperate to get their hands on the World Cup trophy they will probably have to wait until 2023 to make a real challenge.
With Dupont leading the way.
(Editing by Peter Rutherford)