He may be laid-back and quiet off the pitch, but he certainly knows how to make an impact when he crosses the whitewash
France wing Damian Penaud: “He is a free spirit”
Damian Penaud doesn’t like doing interviews but fortunately there are enough anecdotes around to flesh out the most exciting young threequarter in French rugby.
What’s clear is that were the 23-year-old French wing any more laid-back he’d be horizontal. One of his early mentors at Clermont, Aurélien Rougerie, recalled his first impressions of Penaud: “He would arrive late to training, wearing flip-flops and with one eye still closed. He was ridiculously talented but he wasn’t making the most of his opportunity.”
Another Clermont team-mate, Yohan Beheregaray, diplomatically described Penaud as “not a morning person”. He recalls how he would “saunter into training in his flip-flops, in the nick of time”. Once on the pitch Penaud would come into conflict with Camille Lopez for forgetting the calls for backs’ moves.
Was it insouciance or a lack of maturity? Beheregaray remembers squad outings to restaurants where Penaud would spend half an hour in the gents playing games on his iPhone, and trips to the golf course where a poor shot would result in a club being hurled down the fairway.
According to Beheregaray, Rougerie would occasionally have to act like a “policeman”, straightening out the errant youngster and reminding him of his responsibilities as a professional athlete. Rougerie has long since retired and, while Penaud has got his act together, a hint of mischief remains. A few months ago a video went viral in France of Penaud using his false teeth to discover if he’d won anything with a scratchcard.
But one shouldn’t complain. In recent years the colour has drained from professional rugby in France to the point where players just seem to parrot cliches about ‘respect’, ‘values’ and ‘hard work’; all very admirable but where are the game’s characters? The Blancos, Mesnels, Charvets and Champs?
Ironically, Penaud’s dad hailed from this generation but he wasn’t known as one of the more flamboyant players. Capped 32 times by France in the 1990s, Alain Penaud was a rather plodding fly-half, best known to British rugby fans for managing to stick just one year of a three-year contract at Saracens.
“I am disappointed that I am unable to continue to play for Saracens,” said Penaud in 1999, “but I must listen to my wife and young son Damian.”
Thomas Lièvremont played in the same France team as Alain, then coached Damian at U20 level in the 2016 Junior World Cup. “There’s no similarity with his father, who was a strategist with a fantastic kicking game,” says Lièvremont when asked to compare the pair.
“Damian is a free spirit… One has to allow him his liberty. He likes to have the ball, to look for the space. I can’t think of anyone to whom I can compare him. He’s a unique player.”
What father and son do have in common is Brive. Alain began his career at the unfashionable club in 1987 and a decade later the minnows became the masters, beating Leicester to win the European Cup.
Damian came through the Brive ranks but despite his raw talent his demeanour was indecipherable to the club and he was released in 2015. Clermont didn’t hesitate. They knew a rough diamond when they saw one.
Former France and Clermont wing Julien Malzieu described Penaud as “very introverted” when he arrived at Stade Marcel Michelin, hardly surprising given his youth and the fact he was now rubbing shoulders with some of the most recognisable faces in French rugby: Rougerie, Lopez, Wesley Fofana, Morgan Parra and Benjamin Kayser.
Rougerie probably saw in Penaud a bit of himself as a young player. He made his debut for the club aged 18 in 1999 and 16 years later he was a living legend among the Yellow Army. If Rougerie was on Penaud’s case that first season it was because he saw potential.
“He eventually got the message,” he reflects. “He no longer arrived at the last minute and he started applying himself in the weights room, something he’s not crazy about. I made clear to him that if he wanted to survive in a sport becoming ever more confrontational and less about evasion, his body had to be his armour.”
At the same time that Penaud was being schooled at Clermont by the likes of Rougerie and Lopez, he was also learning his craft under Lièvremont with the France U20 squad. “Damian is more interested in the ball than by defence,” he once said of his young charge. “But I can tell you that when he gets it into his head to defend, he can do some serious damage to his opponent.”
If Rougerie played the bad cop with Penaud, then the good cop was Benson Stanley, the ex-All Black who spent five seasons at Clermont. “Rougerie is the hard taskmaster whereas Stanley is more paternal,” said coach Franck Azéma.
Azéma’s assessment came in June 2017, on the eve of Penaud’s Test debut against South Africa. A fortnight earlier Penaud, then 20, had inspired Clermont to the Top 14 title against Toulon. Deep in his own 22, his audacious breakout led to the length-of-the-field try dotted down by Alivereti Raka – one of the greatest tries seen in a Top 14 final.
Les Bleus lost 37-15 in Durban but Penaud marked his first cap with a try and four more followed in his next 15 Tests. All but that opening score have come from the wing, where Penaud has been selected since November 2018. That match, also against the Boks, was his first cap in 12 months after a broken foot sidelined him for a lengthy spell.
In his absence, Guy Novès had been sacked as head coach and replaced by Jacques Brunel, who himself is no more. The new man in charge is Fabien Galthié and it’s fair to say he doesn’t share Penaud’s laid-back character.
Demanding, brusque and a perfectionist, Galthié is known for his ‘no-fools’ approach. How he handles the mercurial Penaud will not only be fascinating, it will be vital for the French squad going forward into what the nation desperately hopes is a new and brighter future. The early signs are good with France three from three in the Six Nations and chasing a first Grand Slam since 2010.
It’s a sign of the young talent now emerging in France that Penaud will soon be one of the old hands, and the shy and slovenly teenager who ambled into the Clermont dressing room in 2015 will be expected to set an example to his younger team-mates.
Nicknamed ‘The Phenomenon’, Penaud lived up to his billing in being named the Best French International of 2018-19 at a recent awards ceremony. It was a well-deserved honour but perhaps the most significant accolade came from Rougerie when he retired the previous season. “His maturity has amazed me,” he said of the man who has replaced him as the idol of the Clermont faithful.
The boy has become a man, and Penaud has the gifts to become one of the greats.
This article originally appeared in the March 2020 issue of Rugby World magazine.
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