Antoine Dupont and Matthieu Jalibert haven’t played together much for France – but their renewed partnership could be devastatingly effective, and New Zealand are first in the firing line.
France are bedding in an unwanted and crucial change to their World Cup plans, with Antoine Dupont and Matthieu Jalibert in a race against time to clutch, declutch their skills for the opening match against New Zealand on September 8.
Romain Ntamack’s Rugby World Cup-ending injury changed everything for France. It split their half-back dream team asunder and left their Webb Ellis Trophy ambitions in tatters.
Those are the attack lines, anyway. Ntamack’s crocked knee was enough to shift bookmakers’ odds away from French favour at their home World Cup. There’s no way Les Bleus will be the same without him, conventional wisdom said.
And then Jalibert played a game of two halves – one quiet, one filled with flair and invention – against Australia.
There’s no doubt Ntamack’s injury was a major shock to the French system. He and Dupont have been Fabien Galthie’s go-to halfback partnership from day one, in February 2020. With good reason.
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A player who was already a star, en route to becoming proclaimed as the world’s best; another recently hailed World Rugby’s Breakthrough Player of the Year. Who wouldn’t want them working together?
And they’re Toulouse team-mates. They’re France team-mates. Two halves of a singularity. They’re the French rugby equivalent of Lennon and McCartney, John and Taupin, Simon and Garfunkel. Dupont is, somehow, less Dupont without Ntamack. And that’s kind of the problem.
New Zealand could be forgiven for breathing a discreet sigh of relief at news of Ntamack’s absence. In November 2021, his remarkable run from behind France’s goal-line ended an All Blacks’ comeback in the only meeting between the two sides so far in the Galthie era. France went on to win that match 40-25.
But the very fact of the injury-enforced late change could work in France’s favour. Dupont-Jalibert is a particularly dangerous partnership because of its difference to Dupont-Ntamack, rather than its similarities. The attacking threat has changed.
New Zealand’s analytical trust has spent a portion of the past three years watching France’s developing game,lmost always with a Dupont-Ntamack hinge, looking for things to exploit, ways to nullify its threat. All that work counts for less now.
Jalibert isn’t Ntamack. It’s a truism that needs repeating. He’s, arguably, a better attacking fly-half.
Dupont and Jalibert have played together and effectively, too. But, until the Australia game on August 27, they hadn’t started a match in tandem since Georgia, a week prior to the New Zealand game in November 2021. Ntamack was inside centre.
It didn’t quite work. But that was then. This is now. A lot of rugby has happened since.
“It’s a bit of a change,” Dupont said of the enforced switch from Ntamack to Jalibert before the 41-17 win over the Wallabies at Stade de France. “Romain and Matthieu are players with different profiles. I work with Romain on a daily basis at club level, but I’ve been working with Matthieu for the last four years in the French national team.
“He has international experience… His competition with Romain is more than healthy, they pull each other up. Matthieu knows the system, the game and the team very well.”
Crucially, Dupont plays well with either fly-half. What France may lose in calm Ntamackian game management – his greatest trick is convincing the rugby world that his nine does all the work – they gain in Jalibertine intrigue.
“Matthieu has the game to cause the same indecision that Antoine (Dupont) brings at nine,” former international scrum-half Guy Accoceberry told L’Equipe recently.
“Until now, teams tended to put two or three players on Dupont to lock him down. Now, if you put too many guys on him, it opens up a lot of space for Matthieu, who will exploit it with his speed or with his favourite move, that little over-the-top kick to himself.”
He’s right. There is a crucial difference between Dupont and Ntamack, and Dupont and Jalibert. It’s at points of difference that games, tournaments, and championships are won and lost.
Coaches have been studying Dupont-Ntamack for years. They’ve developed plans accordingly. Now they have to get used to Dupont-Jalibert in real time because there is no time left between now and the World Cup. Ian Foster’s All Blacks are the first to have to adapt, when all they know is Jalibert isn’t Ntamack
There will be a join at the hinge if you know where to look. Shaun Edwards will work to tweak his defensive structures because Jalibert isn’t as good without the ball as he is with it. But when France have the ball, he can be the difference between a solid, move-stopping tackle and a slipped one. It will work in France’s favour.
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