France's Émilien Gailleton is pushing for selection in France's Rugby World Cup 2023 squad

In France, the path to the Top 14 starts not in schools but in the club game. And it demands big decisions, early. Take Émilien Gailleton. A would-be U20 Rugby World Cup star. The teenage centre has been blowing the bloody doors off at Pau this year, but back when he was 13 he was striking out on his own, leaving home early to play junior rugby in Agen, away from family and the village he grew up in.

“In England you have rugby related to schools,” says the Top 14’s top try-scorer for the 2022-23 season. “In France it’s different because we have all these clubs, and when you’re little and you’re quite good, they’re going to put you in certain teams. So I had to move from my parents.

“I grew up in the countryside, in this village of 160 people. I loved it, but for rugby I had to go to a bigger place. I grew up around one hour north of Toulouse, and I then went out to Agen.”

Read more: U20 Rugby World Cup semi-finals: All you need to know

Think making big decisions is beyond most teenagers? After a few minutes of dialogue with Gailleton, it’s clear he’s not most teenagers. Assured, calm, there is an obvious direction of travel. For a lot of this year, on the field that was towards enemy try-lines. But for him to even be at Pau is interesting enough.

“I get asked about that a lot!” he says, before explaining that having come through the ProD2 last season, he wanted to find a club where he would play. Then there was the allure of working under Sébastien Piqueronies, who masterminded back-to-back U20 titles with France. He knows talent.

There was still work to do, though, and it amuses Gailleton to look back at the season’s start, at going over goals with his boss. “When I came, the head coach told me that I’m going to play maybe five to ten games, if I’m lucky,” he says. “I ended up playing, like, 24 games and being the top scorer of the league! It’s quite funny when I think about it.

“But I’m really happy and feel quite honoured after this season. I came into the Top 14, into the core squad, planning on maybe watching a bit of everybody, learning from the guys. And in the end I came out being the player who played the most in Pau. So that’s funny, but I’m happy it turned out like this. And on my goals for next season, this is good but I don’t want to stop there”

Is it any wonder that France boss Fabien Galthié has brought him into the national fold ahead of the World Cup? His was the definition of a breakout season.

Related: France Rugby World Cup squad

Gailleton has no problem with a wry aside, though. And it comes from a question of his provenance – as he was born in Croydon, right? His mother – half-English, half-Scottish – met his French father on holiday in Africa, the sparky centre believes.

And after living in Montauban, the pair moved to London so mum could finish her studies as a physio. It was there that Émilien was born. Today, the sportsman is happy to benefit from his mother’s skill-set, albeit he hasn’t lived under the same roof for a number of years.

There’s still time for him to make the right choice and pull on the thistle, of course… And here he jokes that he is still capable of making a choice.

Before he got called up for a first cap, he told Rugby World: “I still have the chance to choose because I haven’t gotten capped… I mean, I’ve got caps for the U20s but that doesn’t count. But if I had a choice, it would be France. I grew up in France, I played rugby in France, I’ve got the French rugby habits. I feel more French.

“But imagine I never got the chance to play for France. I’m not going to say not to Scotland or England!”

Despite the little laugh here, he quickly reiterates that he is proudly French, in case we ever doubted it.

Émilien Gailleton on why he skipped World Rugby U20 Championship

The France U20 cap has foregone the Junior World Championship in order to give a run for a senior World Cup spot his very best. And there is a growing sense in the country that he will make the squad of 33. But there is something else that is mentioned a lot. It’s a comparison between this young centre, who started in Agen, and one of the club’s greats – one of the country’s greats – in Philippe Sella. An iconic centre.

On this, Gailleton tells Rugby World: “I feel really honoured because he’s a friend of mine. We are still in contact and we talk a lot. Because besides being a great player he is a really good man. So I’m really glad to be compared to such a player.”

Former France coach Jacques Fouroux once described Sella as having “the strength of a bull but the touch of a piano player”. He could play wing and had a nose for the try-line. A great CV. One of the hallmarks of Gailleton’s game, aside from the racking up of 14 tries this term, has been his speed. And there’s been some serious work there, as he explains: “I think if I’m top scorer in the league, there’s a lot from the speed. So this year I’ve been practising a bit on my speed. I’ve improved one or two kilometres per hour, but not more.

“I’ve also improved a lot in my (understanding) of the game. I know a bit more about where to place myself. There’s still a lot to do but I had a lot of improvement this year.”

He’s taken the jump in division at full stride. He’s gathering pace.

This article first appeared in the August edition of Rugby World. 

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