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Basque brothers: The famous sons of Saint-Pee-sur-Nivelle

SPOTLIGHT: The village of Saint-Pee-sur-Nivelle is not too well known outside of the Pyrenees mountains it nestles in between, let alone throughout France but on Friday eyes from across the globe will be focused on its two most famous sons.

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Maxime Lucu will start for Les Bleus instead of the injured Antoine Dupont with Charles Ollivon leading the side in the absence of the influential scrumhalf against Italy in the crucial World Cup group game.

Shaven-headed scrumhalf Lucu and abrasive flank Ollivon, both 30, grew up among around 7,000 other habitants in ‘Saint-Pee’ in the rugby-mad Basque Country, near to the Spanish border and inland from Biarritz and Bayonne, two giants of the sport in France.

They started playing together as youngsters for the local Saint-Pee club whose senior men’s team now feature in the ninth tier and includes Maxime’s older brother Ximun.

“I didn’t really dream of being a professional rugby player back then as it was for other people,” Lucu told AFP.

“Saint-Pee was a village, our parents played for the first-team in Federale Three [the now seventh tier] at best.

“Dreaming of going pro was for those who played for Biarritz or Bayonne.

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“Our first dream was to play in the Saint-Pee jersey, like our parents did together,” he added.

Ollivon joined Bayonne’s academy as a 15-year-old but now plays for Toulon on the Cote d’Azur and was France captain under Fabien Galthié until suffering an injury two years ago.

Lucu joined Bayonne’s bitter rivals Biarritz aged 18 before moving to Bordeaux-Begles up the Atlantic coast in 2019.

In July 2022, the pair featured for Les Bleus together for the first time during a two-Test tour in Japan.

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It came more than a decade on from lacing up their boots together as children at the Stade Municipale, a stone’s throw away from a bakery selling the local delicacy, the Basque Cake, and surrounded by fields filled with sheep raised to make ewes’ milk cheese.

“We didn’t think at all they would get to the level and it’s never happened to the club,” Charles’ dad Jean-Michel Ollivon told AFP.

“Getting to the professional level is already huge, but then the national team is unthinkable,” he added.

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‘Excitement’

Four months later, the pair from the village on the banks of the Nivelle river, lined up for France against Japan again.

The World Cup hosts strolled past the Brave Blossoms with Ollivon’s first-half try, set-up by Lucu, one of the highlights in Toulouse.

“That move, they did it hundreds of times as youngsters,” Michel Sein, their junior rugby coach at Saint-Pee, told AFP.

“Seeing it in an international match, it was the high point,” he added.

This weekend, Saint-Pee will be on the world’s stage with Lucu and Ollivon’s France needing to avoid defeat to Italy in Lyon to guarantee a quarter-final spot.

Former World Rugby player of the year Dupont is expected to return from his cheekbone fracture for the knock-outs with France among the favourites to lift the Webb Ellis trophy.

“As Charles’ friend since a young age, we registered as players for the first time at the same time and now playing our first World Cup game with him as captain and me as a starter, it’s an important moment for us,” Lucu told reporters this week.

“They’re things that matter when you’ve been friends from a young age.

“I don’t want to put too much negative pressure on myself and make the most of the moment because it’s an important moment for me and my career.

“I feel more excitement than the negative pressure,” he added.

* Picture credit: @rugbyworldcup

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