For so long the French centre was one of Europe’s brightest stars. After a stint in New York, Bastareaud reflects on his amazing journey. This first appeared in Rugby World magazine in April.
Roaring success, 2017
“This photo (the main image above) is from a Top 14 semi-final against La Rochelle, at the Vélodrome stadium in Marseille,” says Mathieu Bastareaud. “It was not a simple game, they played very well.
“But they took a red card (Pierre Aguillon, tip tackle) when they were leading 15-6. We played well and won through a last-second drop-goal from Anthony Belleau. Big breath. It was very intense!”
Paris, je t’aime, 2008
“It was a special time for me because I’m from a little city (Créteil) close to Paris, I was born there. I played for the biggest club in Paris, in front of my family and also with legends like Christophe Dominici, Juan Martín Hernández and Ignacio Corleto.
“When I started training at Stade I was impressed. They helped me be more confident with my rugby. Paris remains a special club for me and for French people because the spirit of the team is very different.”
Big breakthrough, 2013
“This was Toulon’s first European Cup final (in Dublin) and one of my best memories on the pitch. People thought Clermont would win – and they almost did with world-class play – but after Delon Armitage’s try we had our first big trophy (16-15). From then we created something special.”
King of New York, 2020
“I’d been speaking with a club in South Africa, but they took too long and I needed to secure my family’s future. Then Rugby United New York came in and I knew one of their owners from Stade before. I wanted to leave France and see a new culture. I didn’t know anything about the city, the culture.
“I was excited to go somewhere I knew nothing about. So I said ‘yes’ quickly. It (was) a great opportunity and in two or three years Major League Rugby will be a great place for rugby.”
Pucker up, 2015
“It’s a good one, this. Yoann (Huget) knows that I will never express my feelings. Sometimes I am very happy inside but I will also look p***ed off or nervous!
“So he loves playing jokes on me. He knew the photographer was there and so he kissed me at that exact moment. I remember I ran after him after that!”
World Cup misery, 2015
“We took 60 points in the quarters. I was so disappointed about my Rugby World Cup. I expected to play better but I put a lot of pressure on my shoulders. I didn’t play as I wanted, especially against Ireland. I played badly, which is why I was on the bench here for New Zealand. I was so frustrated.
“And when I got on the pitch they were already 30 points ahead. We have a saying, ‘Impossible is not French’. But when you play the All Blacks it can be impossible! I knew the World Cup was finished and you never know if you can play another one, so I was sad.”
Test baptism, 2009
“I was very nervous before playing Wales. I wasn’t in the team at the start of the tournament and didn’t expect to be capped. Maxime Mermoz got injured and they called me. My phone was ringing and I didn’t recognise the number, so I didn’t answer. For an hour I thought, ‘Who called me?’
“Christophe Dominici was my coach at Stade then and he called to ask what I was doing. I was at home after training and he said, ‘Pack your bag, you’re with the French team.’ I thought it was a joke but I was so nervous.
“I called my mother and she began crying, she was so happy. I phoned someone with the team to ask what to bring. ‘Just bring underwear and boots,’ he said.
“I expected to be on the bench so when the coach (Marc Lièvremont) said I was starting, I was in shock. Dominici called and said not to be nervous, enjoy it.
“I have good memories. Tom Shanklin was my opposite 13 and afterwards gave me his jersey. He said, ‘Don’t worry, I know it’s your first cap.’ It was a good present as I remember watching him in 2005 when Wales won the Grand Slam.”
Toulon too good, 2011
“I wasn’t picked for the 2011 World Cup. It was hard because I wasn’t playing well, I wasn’t fit.
“I lost myself along the way. At the Six Nations I was good but I needed to work harder, day after day. In Paris, you can get lost if you’re young and get famous. In Paris you can do anything, on any day, at any hour. Paris is the best city to lose your way!
“I thought I needed a big change. I had to move club and change city, not stay in my comfort zone. Because even when I played bad I knew I’d play the next game.
“Philippe Saint-André was the coach at Toulon. I met him and then I said, ‘Why not?’ Toulon had won nothing but they were ambitious and had already signed Bakkies Botha and Matt Giteau, and Jonny (Wilkinson) was there. So I knew that it would be difficult to play, with a lot of good players. I accepted the challenge.
“This was Jonny’s first game after the World Cup. He’d just got back and he could have gone on holiday, but he asked to play and I thought, ‘Whoah! That’s amazing!’ During my years with him, that was a good model for me.”
Great eight, 2019
“I could have stayed in Toulon if I wanted; it wasn’t the same as Paris, I chose to leave Stade, but in Toulon I was starting to be bigger than just a player. A new coach wants his players to play for him and sometimes we weren’t on the same page. So I preferred to move and let the club grow with a new coach, new players, a new chairman.
“In Toulon the coach already asked me about playing No 8 and I said, ‘Why not!’ When I moved to Lyon, the coach said he heard about that and again I said, ‘I think I can play No 8.’ It would be a new experience, a new pleasure on the pitch, so he said, ‘Let’s go.’
“It’s not the same. In the backs you have to run, tackle, take contact, but there’s rest. In the forwards it’s scrums, lineout, clear rucks, win collisions. You never stop. It’s not the same rugby!”
A harsh lesson, 2009
“When I think back to that tour of New Zealand, I was young and I needed to be more clever, to trust my team-mates, because I made a mistake. Like a kid who didn’t want to be caught, I lied (he fell into a table after a night out and damaged his face, but at first claimed he was jumped by five locals. He was sent home when CCTV footage later emerged). It was bad, then it was very bad when I came home. In France it was a big, big, big, big story.
“The prime minister talked about it in the newspapers. A lot of people talked badly about me. That was very hard for me but more for my family. They knew I made a mistake but all those bad comments, for me it was too much for my mistake. I had killed nobody but then some journalists tried to go to my mother’s house, and they called my father with withheld numbers.
“It was very hard for my family. But at the end of this story I think it made me stronger, in my head. After that I saw the real face of professional world rugby. I was on top but after two months people talked of me like garbage.”
Captain’s call, 2018
“For me to captain France was very special for my family. I got sick before the game as I was so nervous. I had a lot of feelings.
“I was thinking about ten years ago in New Zealand, I was thinking about my mother and father, I was thinking of my first training when I was a kid. I had all those feelings and I was so stressed. When you are captain of your club that’s fine. But when you captain your country, you represent all of your country.
“To have this honour, it’s one of my best memories. Yeah, my mum was so proud because since I started she would support me through the good and bad and she always trusted me. So that was a good present for her.”
Mountain man, 2015
“This was before the 2015 World Cup and we went to Tignes for a training camp. We went for a big hike, starting at 5am to be on the top of the mountain by 11. That was very hard! For the team it’s important to work hard together. We had a lot of fun together too.”
Barbarian days, 2019
“My first time with the Baa-Baas was in 2011. Every time someone asked me what it was like I said, ‘Amazing.’ So when they called to ask about the 2019 tour I couldn’t say no. This is the rugby I love – just take pleasure, share it with players from other countries, it’s great. I enjoyed my three weeks with the boys.
“I wore a sock for Massy, my club before I joined Paris. It’s important for me to remember where I come from and I was with Massy three years. I learnt a lot and played my first season in the third division at 18 and it was really hard – it wasn’t rugby but a fight! That was good for me, mentally.”
This feature with Mathieu Bastareaud first appeared in Rugby World magazine in April.
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