Spotlight on Dupont's understudy
SPOTLIGHT: A lot of pressure was on France scrumhalf Maxime Lucu even before the start of this year’s Six Nations as Antoine Dupont’s heir apparent, but it has ramped up another gear before he starts Saturday’s round two trip to Scotland.
Les Bleus opened their campaign with a chastening 18-38 defeat by Ireland in Marseille on Friday, leaving their title hopes in tatters with Lucu the scapegoat for some.
Dupont, 27, was missing for the loss as he has chosen to train with France’s seven-a-side squad before this year’s Olympic Games instead of featuring in the annual tournament.
The former World Rugby player of the year’s absence was felt even more so after his superb display for club Toulouse on Sunday, which included a try and two delightful assists in a Top 14 win over Bayonne.
Bordeaux-Begles’ Lucu, 31, had a difficult hour or so at the Stade Velodrome before being replaced by debutant youngster Nolann Le Garrec, with questions being raised about him in the number nine jersey, a crucial playmaking position at all levels of French rugby.
Lucu was given a 3/10 rating by French sports newspaper L’Equipe and a 2.5/10 from specialist rugby publication Midi Olympique for his performance as he tasted defeat for the first time on the field in a Les Bleus jersey.
“A lot of fingers have been pointed at Maxime but is it not a frustration based on not having Antoine in the competition?” former France centre Matthieu Bastareaud told RugbyPass this week.
“Now he (Dupont) is more and more well known by opponents, I don’t think he would have changed anything,” Bastareaud added.
The combative Lucu made just his sixth Test start from 19 appearances during the defeat by Ireland, having played second fiddle to Dupont since his France debut off the bench in November 2021.
Since his international bow the bald-headed Basque scrumhalf has jumped above the likes of experienced Baptiste Serin and energetic Baptiste Couilloud and has staved off, for now, fierce competition from the up-and-coming Le Garrec in the pecking order behind Dupont thanks to his game management skills and excellent kicking.
In Edinburgh this weekend, as in Marseille, Lucu will line up alongside fellow Bordeaux-Begles flyhalf Matthieu Jalibert as Fabien Galthie eyes avoiding experiencing a third straight loss as France head coach for the first time.
Lucu and Jalibert have featured together at Stade Chaban-Delmas since 2019 and they had seemed to have put the disappointment of October’s World Cup quarterfinal loss to South Africa to one side by guiding the club to the Champions Cup last 16 as well as the Top 14 play-off spots this season.
“He (Lucu) is used to working in an extraordinary way with Matthieu Jalibert at Bordeaux-Begles and the results with his club prove that,” France set-piece coach William Servat told reporters on Monday.
“He’s a great person, and a type of person that is very important for France.
“He’s highly regarded by the players and also by the staff,” the former France hooker added.
Scotland are the only side to have beaten France on three occasions since wily former captain Galthie took charge in December 2019.
Plenty of eyes will be on Lucu at Murrayfield, with in-form Le Garrec snapping at his heels for a starting spot especially with Italy coming up on February 25.
The game later this month offers Galthie a chance at making more than the two changes he has implemented for Saturday’s trip to the Scottish capital, a place where Les Bleus have won just three times in the past decade.
An influential Lucu display would quieten the playmaker’s doubters and help get France’s Six Nations back on the right track.
“Max, in general, has made the team better around him when he has come on over the past years,” Servat said.
“He’s with us and we know where we’re going with him right now.”