Sliding into French hearts: Hugo Bonneval's spectacular try against Italy has earned him rave reviews

Sliding into French hearts: Hugo Bonneval’s spectacular try against Italy has earned him rave reviews

By Gavin Mortimer

There’s some rugby talent in the Bonneval family. It began half a century ago or so, with Rene, a teak tough prop with TOEC [Toulouse olympique employés club] in Toulouse. His son, Eric, won 18 caps for France in the 1980s and was a member of the Toulouse side that won back-to-back league titles in 1985 and 1986. Eric’s lightning pace as a winger brought him five tries during France’s 1987 Grand Slam season but his proudest achievement is to produce two sons who are every bit as talented as himself. Arthur, only 18, made his Top 14 debut for Toulouse last month in the centre, while 23-year-old Hugo won his first cap for France against Italy and celebrated the occasion with a try that will take some beating in this season’s ‘Try of the Championship’ category.

The try, need you reminding, was one of those length-of-the-field French specials, a moment of magic that bears comparison with Serge Blanco’s score in the 1987 World Cup semi-final, Philippe Saint-Andre’s try at Twickenham in 1991 and the greatest of them all, Jean-Luc Sadourny’s eye-popping effort against New Zealand in 1994. “Wesley Fofana and Yoann Huget did all the hard work, I was just in the right place at the end,” says Bonneval, laughing, although he does himself a disservice.  Watch the VT again, and see how the debutant showed wonderful awareness to cut inside at just the right moment so he wasperfectly placed to take Huget’s pass.  “When you score a try like that you don’t think ‘that was a beautiful try’. You’re just happy to have scored for your country and you hope it will lead to a victory.”

Marked man: Bonneval is happy to take on Cuthbert

Marked man: Bonneval is happy to take on Cuthbert

It did, the second of France’s Six Nations campaign, and they now travel to Cardiff as joint leaders of the championship with Ireland. “It’s going to be tough against Wales,” says Bonneval. “After that heavy defeat against Ireland they’ll want to respond in front of their fans.”

Assuming Bonneval is selected again on the left wing by Philippe Saint-Andre, he’ll likely face Alex Cuthbert. “I’ve never played against either North or Cuthbert,” says Bonneval. “They’re both fantastic players as they showed for the Lions in the summer. But they’re not the only quality players in the Wales team. I’ve played against Jamie Roberts, Dan Lydiate and Mike Phillips in the Top 14 so I know about their quality. But they also have Warburton, Halfpenny and many others.”

By modern standards Bonneval isn’t particularly big for a wing. He stands 6ft 1 and weighs 14 stone, a physique not too dissimilar from his father. “I’ve always encouraged him not to follow the ‘bodybuilders’ fashion,” said Bonneval senior in an interview last year. “He’s got enough tools as it is and possesses an explosiveness and a fluidity.”

Bonneval’s parents separated when he was very young and he grew up in Paris with his mother so despite the fact he was born in the south of France, he proudly declares: “I’m 100 percent Parisian!” Totally Parisian and totally Stade Francais, the club he joined when he was 13. For most of his ten years with Stade, Bonneval has played alongside Jules Plisson, graduating from the youth side to the national team. “I was very happy to play alongside Jules [on his debut],” says Bonneval. “ He’s a good mate and it made my first cap all the more special, to be able to share it with someone I’ve known for so long.”

Bonneval plays full-back for Stade but Saint-Andre know enough about wing play to recognise that here was a man with the pace and perception to thrive out wide. “I prefer full-back because there’s more freedom and more responsibility,” admits Bonneval. “But obviously I will play for France wherever I’m told.”

Raw speed isn’t Bonneval’s only weapon. He has the balance and agility of the natural athlete, and in his childhood played just about every sport going – except rugby. “Sport was something to be enjoyed and I wanted to play with my friends so  I played football, tennis, swimming, skiing,” he explains. “It wasn’t until I was 13 that I first played rugby because I wanted to try something new. It was a sport I felt good playing.”

Bonneval's bezzie: Plisson

Bonneval’s bezzie: Jules Plisson

Bonneval’s first step on the representative ladder came courtesy of one of his father’s former teammates – the great Philippe Sella, a mesmeric centre who won 111 caps for France. “I learned a lot from Philippe,” says Bonneval. “He selected me for the U20s World Championship in Argentina in 2010 and I actually signed a pre-contract with Agen, where he was coach there, but for other reasons I didn’t go in the end.”

Bonneval remained loyal to Stade, playing alongside his best mate Plisson and reinvigorating the Parisian side after a spell in the doldrums.  It looks like the pair could well do the same to France, helping restore some pride and prestige to Les Bleus after their disastrous 2013. Bonneval, of course, will do it his own inimitable way. His father describes his son as very much his own man, “an independent type who knows what he wants and where he’s going”, and certainly Bonneval says he’ll always remain true to his rugby philosophy. “Playing with flair is important to me,” he explains. “I’m someone who likes to take the initiative on the field. Of course we should respect the structure, the game plan, but it’s also good from time to time to go with your ‘feeling’ because it can destabilise the opposition. There are times I’m not sure what I’m going to do when I get the ball and it doesn’t always come off. But it often does and it often leads to something beautiful.”