By Gavin Mortimer
AS TEST debuts go, they don’t come much tougher than the one endured by Remi Tales. The French fly-half replaced Frederic Michalak 64 minutes into the second Test against the All Blacks in June. France were losing 23-0 at the time so what was Tales supposed to do? Inspire the maman of all comebacks?
His first full cap came the following week, in the third and final Test of France’s summer tour to New Zealand. The French at least got points on the board in New Plymouth, but their 24-9 defeat hardly boosted morale in what hasn’t been the best of years for Les Bleus.
France have their chance for revenge on Saturday night in Paris, but few give them a realistic chance of inflicting on New Zealand what would be their first defeat of the year. Tales is tipped to start at ten in the Stade de France, his form for Castres giving him the edge over Perpignan’s promising fly-half Camille Lopez.
If he does start his first match in front of his home crowd, it will cap an astonishing rise for the 29-year-old Tales, proof that sometimes the best things do come to those who wait. So why has it taken Tales so long to get to where he is now? “I spent seven years in Pro2 (with Mont de Marsan and La Rochelle) so I was a latecomer to the Top 14,” he explains. “Then in my first season at Castres in 2011-12 I ruptured my knee ligaments and that kept me out for several months. So it wasn’t until last season that I really benefited from playing regularly in the Top 14, and fortunately I was in a very successful Castres side.”
Tales was one of the pivotal figures in Castres winning the Top 14 last season for the first time in 20 years. He started 23 of their 29 Top 14 matches, and the greater the pressure the more he thrived, culminating in his two dropped goals in the 19-14 defeat of Toulon in the final. It was one of the great upsets of recent years in French rugby and Tales says the win was three years in the making. “That’s how long we had been building as a squad. Each season we got better and better, evolving as a squad, and it was our solidarity that proved so important in our success.”
Though he drops goals for Castres – five in total last season – Tales doesn’t kick them, leaving that task to his scrum-half Rory Kockott. He’s not the first French fly-half to delegate the responsibility, and nor will Tales be the last, but why is the practice so common across the Channel? “The fly-half has other responsibilities so it’s easier for him to concentrate on those – like tactical kicking or directing the backline – if his scrum-half takes on the goal-kicking,” explains Tales. “It’s always been that way with me, and I’ve also been lucky to play at clubs where there has been a scrum-half who kicks.”
Tales admits he’s learned much from studying Jonny Wilkinson in the past few seasons, describing the Toulon ten as the “reference” for all fly-halves in France. It’s not just the Englishman’s drop goals that Tales admires, it’s also his defence, an area of his own game that is rock solid. “Tens today are more exposed than ever as defenders so you’ve got to be able to tackle,” says Tales who stands 6ft 1in and weighs 14 and a half stone. “It’s a part of the game I enjoy so there’s no problem for me.”
Tales insists that the morale of the France squad is “good” after the events of last season when for the first time in 14 years they finished bottom of the Six Nations, and then suffered their series whitewash in New Zealand. “We’ve done a lot of work since losing the three Tests in June and we believe in ourselves. We’re up against the best side in the world but we’ve nothing to lose on Saturday. New Zealand are the favourites but why can’t we win?”
The question most French rugby fans want answered is why can’t their boys play the way they used to, when their rugby was synonymous with panache and daring, what came to be dubbed ‘French flair’. “Rugby has changed since those days,” replies Tales. “We still have the quality of players capable of scoring tries the length of the field, in the old style, but defences these days are much tighter and better organised. The French game used to be based on the counter-attack but opponents are fitter now and the space isn’t there. “
They don’t come much fitter than the All Blacks, as Tales discovered in June. Two defeats then, will it be third time lucky for him in Paris?