Her family wanted her to play basketball but she chose rugby – and it’s a decision that’s paid off as the lock is a standout for France


Madoussou Fall Exclusive: From basketball to les Bleues

Madoussou Fall looks like she would not be out of place in the WNBA, and if her family had had their way that is where she might have ended up. Thankfully for France and women’s rugby as a whole, the 24-year-old lock stuck to her guns and chose the oval ball over the orange one and it has paid off in spades.

At 187cm (6ft 2in in old money), Fall is one of the most striking players in the game, and she uses that size advantage to great effect. And yet it took huge determination for her to end up in rugby, going against the wishes of her family and particularly mum Fatoumata Traoré, an international basketball player in her own right.

“When I was younger I did basketball, athletics and judo, as well as rugby of course,” explains Fall. “As time went on, I had to stop one sport because it was taking up so much time and I had to study alongside. At the end I was left with basketball and rugby, but basketball was mainly because my mum was a former international basketball player. I didn’t really enjoy the sport, whereas I really enjoyed myself in rugby.

“I was then offered the chance to do a sport-étude in rugby (a combined academic and sporting programme), so then I decided to stop basketball and concentrate more on the rugby.”

Whereas basketball was the family religion, Fall was taking a step into the unknown with rugby, a sport that was barely familiar at home and that she only picked up at school. That was not always easy and it took a while to convince her mother, who has since passed away.

She says: “My mother inspired me. I had a really tough period immediately after she passed away because I knew that she supported me in this sport and she always told me that she had faith in me and that I can fulfil my dreams. I cling to that and think to myself, ‘I want her to be proud of me’.

“My family always pushed me towards basketball so while it helped having someone who had played sport at the highest level, they also struggled to understand at times because they always imagined me playing basketball whereas for me it was rugby. But as time went on, they accepted it and encouraged me.

“Coming from a sporting family, they understand the demands and that helped me progress but at the start, it’s fair to say it was very, very complicated. Now they watch all my matches, and even sometimes will give me some words of advice! So yes, now we can say they are a rugby family.”

Traoré is still Fall’s greatest inspiration and the Bordeaux lock admits it was not easy coming to terms with losing her. “A couple of years ago I was coming back from a long way back,” she says of her grief. “There were some events that meant that I was really down but it also allowed me to climb back up from the bottom.

“It made me realise that I had to work because I had flaws like everyone. I’m still working. I think the fact that I have taken on a bigger role (in the French team) is down to the work I have done individually, but also from the club that helps me and the coaching staff who have believed in me.

Madoussou Fall

Madoussou Fall on the charge during France’s narrow defeat by England in the World Cup pool stages (Getty Images)

“It’s also thanks to the work with the team because you can work as hard as you want, but you don’t play rugby on your own. So it’s about working and taking on a bigger role, which I’m really enjoying and allows me to know that I can aim even higher.”

Having grown up in the Parisian suburbs, Fall made a big decision in 2021 to leave Bobigny for the Atlantic coast and Bordeaux. In her first season, the side reached the French play-offs for the very first time, while a run to the semi-finals also made it the most successful campaign to date for Fall herself.

It was little surprise that she has decided to stay put for another season, although the prospect of a spell abroad is not out of the question down the line.

“I’ve learnt a lot over the course of the year. I had to prove myself again, I had to prove that I deserved to have a place in the match-day 23. I was challenged and that was good. It was a new game plan, so that took some adapting to; it did me good and allowed me to progress.

“I’m really pleased with the first year and that’s why I’ve signed on for a second season. We’ll see after that. I’ll look to see where I can progress and enjoy myself, that’s the most important aspect. It’s important to feel comfortable where I am.

“I’m really open to anything, so if there is a proposition that is interesting in terms of work and my progress as a sportswoman, and of course if the FFR are happy, then why not (try going overseas). I’m not closed to going abroad at all.”

That mindset is consistent with Fall’s outlook on life in general, which is not solely focused on rugby. Having shelved plans to become a physio – the academic demands were too challenging in combination with the schedule of an elite sportswoman – she instead studied for a diploma in human resources. She passed that during her time at Bobigny, where Fall spent half her time playing rugby and the remainder on professional development in an office.

She says: “It’s a career that really interests me, you are in contact with lots of people at the heart of a business and it’s something that will always exist. Once I’d passed my diploma, I went into coaching. I started coaching the minimes at my club, Bobigny, the U10s. So that is what I’m focusing on at the moment.

“I’ll do the two once I finish playing. I want to keep playing rugby as long as possible and then afterwards I’d like to keep one foot in the sport. Being in an office all day is something that suits me, but not all year round. I’ll need to escape and get onto the pitch, to exchange and share my passion, so I hope I’ll be able to do both.”

That’s still a long way into the future, however. In the present, Fall is heading into the World Cup knockout stages in New Zealand as perhaps France’s most important player.

They face Italy in the quarter-finals – a team Fall has a habit of scoring against – and if they overcome that hurdle they will likely meet the hosts (who play Wales in the last eight) in the semi-finals.

After successive thumping wins over the Black Ferns last autumn, both without an injured Fall, France have reason to be confident that this could be their time to reach a women’s World Cup final for the first time.

To do that, they will have to get the most out of Fall and it was no coincidence that Thomas Darracq, now the man in charge of the team, picked her out in the immediate aftermath of the loss to England in April that saw France miss out on the Six Nations Grand Slam.

He said at the time: “We were able to get over the gain-line thanks to Madoussou, but in terms of recycling the ball we were not able to maintain that speed. We need to improve the play around Madoussou. She has work to do in contact, to be able to keep the ball alive around her. That is part of the progress she needs to make going forwards.”

Even England’s powerful pack struggled to contain Fall, both in that championship match and their recent pool game in New Zealand, but there is still room for improvements. As Fall says: “We are working on our strengths, what we are capable of doing and really digging into the details. We’ve worked harder, so we will be technically stronger than we were in the Six Nations.”

If France can nail down that accuracy and Fall becomes the focal point that Darracq envisions, this World Cup might just be the edition that sees them take the big leap from perennial semi-finalists to world champions.

This article originally appeared in Rugby World magazine’s November 2022 edition.

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