From a fly-half in Loughborough’s fifth team to a lock for France at Test level, via a spell in Argentina. Paul Eddison reports

Fabien Galthie has a word for players in the France set-up who have followed unlikely paths to the international game; they’re known as ‘ovni’. In English, UFOs. France World Cup star Thibaud Flament is perhaps the best example.

In Galthié’s first squad in 2020 you had Anthony Bouthier, the former builder who played his first top-flight game at 27 and was starting for France within six months. His former Montpellier team-mate Mohamed Haouas’s Test debut was not his first ‘Crunch’, having played for the French Navy against their English counterparts four years prior to packing down against Joe Marler and co.

Since then, Gabin Villiere has gone from being a second-team scrum-half in the third tier to a sevens standout and then a Test winger in just 18 months. And, in July 2021, Melvyn Jaminet kicked France to a first win on Australian soil in 31 years before he’d got his first taste of the Top 14.

Even by those standards, Thibaud Flament’s emergence to make his Test debut in November 2021 was remarkable. It became one of the common refrains of that autumn: Did you know that Thibaud Flament used to play fly-half for Loughborough University fifths?

In just five years, the 6ft 8in Flament, who had taken up rugby in Belgium, went from pulling the strings at ten in BUCS Four to starting in the second row for les Bleus against Argentina at the Stade de France. When he scored a try on a winning debut, all anyone could talk about was his university background. Very quickly it became a cliché to file away with Maro Itoje’s poetry, Liam Williams’s past life as a scaffolder or Zander Fagerson, the prop who used to be a choirboy.

Yet the reason Flament’s journey resonates is because it is so improbable. He is almost exactly two years older than his Toulouse and France team-mate Romain Ntamack, a player who has been tipped for the highest honours almost since he watched his old man Émile beat the All Blacks in the 1999 Rugby World Cup semi-final at Twickenham as a six-month-old.

The duo may have both started their careers as fly-halves but it was Ntamack who was on the books at Toulouse from the age of five and represented every France team through the age groups, usually playing up a year or two.

When Ntamack was France’s first-choice ten at the 2019 World Cup at the age of 20, Flament had just signed his first professional contract with Wasps and was watching what was happening in Japan from the pub with his mates. He admits it is somewhat surreal that the pair now share a changing room for club and country. Although an ACL injury has cruelly deprived Ntamack of a starring role in a home World Cup.

Where Ntamack always seemed destined for the top, Flament has taken the long route – but both are imbued with the same determination. The 26-year-old explains: “The rugby has always been the main focus. My aim, my dream was to be a professional rugby player and all my decisions were based around that. The choice of going to study in the UK was a means to an end, to reach that objective, and that’s why I chose to go to Loughborough.”

After a decade playing for ASUB Waterloo in Belgium (he was born in Paris but moved to Belgium via Singapore with his family when he was three), Flament was never going to get picked up by a French academy and acknowledges that he was not yet good enough. As a late developer, the move to Loughborough to study international business worked out perfectly, for him and the uni.

Dave Morris, then Loughborough’s director of rugby, remembers laying eyes on Flament for the first time. He recalls: “We have trials for the new students at the university and we have a lecture theatre where we give a speech explaining what the process looks like. All the time you are trying to assess the physical profile of people and second-row is one that I’m looking at. When I saw this very tall, very thin player, I went up and asked him what position he was. He said he was a fly-half in a French-Belgian accent. It was a bit of a shock.

“At the trial, straightaway you could see that he had this great ability to catch the ball late, time his pass before contact and out of contact. You just thought, with that height, long-term on the depth chart at Loughborough, he’d be a good person to convert to the second row, both for him and for the Loughborough programme. We called him ‘The Project’, so in our multi-disciplinary team meetings with the physio, strength and conditioning etc, we would discuss how Thibaud’s conversion and progress was going.”

Flament was open to the change of position, showing a level of trust in Morris and the coaches at Loughborough. Given his height, he knew it was something he would have to do eventually and says: “I was pretty happy to change position. I always knew at one point that I would end up moving to the second row or back row.

“It all went very smoothly. In my first year I was playing in the fifth team, which had just been created that year so we had to start very low in the league. We were winning all our games 85-0 or something like that, so it made it easier to transition from fly-half to second-row.”

After two years at Loughborough, Flament went to Argentina for a placement at the French embassy, bulking up and learning a different approach to the game. There is no question that the experience was among the most formative of his career.

He says: “It was a life-changing year. The way they play rugby and live life in Argentina was very different to what I had experienced before. It shifted the way I saw the game. When I arrived there, I realised I was putting too much pressure on myself and not enjoying it.

“Seeing people in Argentina play, I could see the way they enjoyed themselves and focused on having fun and having a great time. I think that’s what made me become a better player and a better person.

“When I arrived there, I didn’t have a placement or a place to stay but I had a rugby club (Club Newman) and someone picking me up at the airport. I trusted the rugby passport. I stayed at the flat of some of the boys at the beginning, they helped me find a place to stay and then after a few weeks I found my own place.”

By the time Flament returned to the UK, Morris had moved to London Scottish and tried to sign his former charge. Instead, Wasps beat him to the punch and in his very first session with the senior squad, Flament and fellow newcomer Alfie Barbeary made such an impression that he never dropped back down to training with the academy. He had joined Wasps in June 2019 and by that December, Toulouse were in touch as they looked to bolster their lock stocks.

What is perhaps more surprising is that Toulouse’s interest coincided with another call, from France forwards coach William Servat. The new coaching staff were putting together a list of 75 players who they were keeping tabs on with a view to a home World Cup in 2023. With less than six months of professional rugby under his belt, it says a lot for Flament that he had done enough to catch the eye of coaches and is an example of the wider net being cast to find those elusive UFOs.

The pandemic and successive metatarsal injuries slowed Flament’s progress but he finished his first season in France strongly as Toulouse claimed a domestic and European double, and had done enough to earn a shot with les Bleus by the time November rolled around. That his debut came against Argentina was a nod to his rugby journey.

He says: “The game had a lot of meaning to me. Playing for France has been my dream forever and since I came back from Argentina, my dream was to play against them in my first game.”

Flament’s first carry saw him lifted and carried backwards by Tomas Lavanini but he got his own back with France’s first try, running a gorgeous line off Matthieu Jalibert to put the home side back in front on their way to a 29-20 win.

Two weeks later Cameron Woki had taken Flament’s starting role and instead he was part of France’s finishing group, coming on against the All Blacks as an 18-point lead had been reduced to two. A counter-attack from behind his own line from Ntamack changed the game, and it is no coincidence that Flament was the first forward to get up to play after that break. France did not look back and ran out 40-25 winners.

From Loughborough fifths to beating the All Blacks in five years. Even Morris admits he could not have predicted this rise: “I could see that he could be a really good player and I thought he could be a professional player. But in my first two years at Loughborough, it never entered my mind that he would be a French international within four or five years. The boy has done well!”

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

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