No orchestra is complete without a conductor – the maestro ensuring every section is in rhythm and that each disparate part is ticking along in pursuit of the same goal.
During the 2020 Guinness Six Nations, France produced the rugby equivalent of music sweet enough to make the Orchestre de Paris proud, with Antoine Dupont as the baton-twirling heartbeat of everything they did.
They may have fallen agonisingly short of the title, as points difference stopped them lifting the trophy for the first time since 2010, but Les Bleus were fearless, exhilarating to watch and devastatingly effective.
Swashbuckling and exciting in attack, they were newly steely and resilient in defence, all while suggesting there is still plenty more to come from a team that has only just begun to tap into its potential.
But for a late Owen Farrell penalty snatching England a losing bonus point at the Stade de France in Round 1, the Guinness Six Nations trophy would currently be residing in Paris rather than London.
Yet in spite of that near miss, both the present and the future of French rugby is undeniably bright, with newly-crowned Guinness Six Nations Player of the Championship Dupont orchestrating proceedings from scrum-half.
Still only 23 years old, Dupont feels like a relative veteran in this current France team, having accrued 26 caps since his debut back in 2017.
That victory over England, way back in Round 1, saw Les Bleus field a starting XV with an average of ten caps apiece, making the field general at No.9 all the more important.
Dupont was more than up to the task – powerful, electric, decisive – and, from there, only seemed to get better with every passing round until the Player of the Championship crown was eventually, perhaps inevitably, bestowed upon him
But for those who have been playing attention, the remarkable rise of the boy from Castelnau-Magnoac in south-west France has come as no surprise.
Having first picked up rugby as a four-year-old at local club Magnoac FC, Dupont was almost lost to the sport at just seven years old – becoming bored with players his own age and wanting to try football instead.
But his talent was obvious, so his coaches moved him up an age-group and he still shone, even though he was sometimes facing children two years older than him.
He eventually joined Auch as a junior aged 14 and then moved to Castres as a precocious 17-year-old, making his first-team debut and almost immediately marking himself out as a future France half-back.
Whether in the Top 14 or in Europe – Leinster fans may remember a youthful Dupont running rings round them in a Champions Cup draw in January 2017 – the Frenchman produced consistently impressive displays.
That translated to the international stage as he was one of the stars of the 2016 World Rugby Under-20 Championship, scoring 36 points – which included five tries.
A full international debut came in the 2017 Championship as he emerged from the bench in victories over Italy in Rome and Wales in Paris – a 20-year-old trusted in one of the most mentally-demanding positions on the rugby field.
And if those displays gave a tantalising hint of his ability, a first Test start in the autumn of 2017 confirmed it.
He managed more metres (91), clean breaks (4) and defenders beaten (7) than anyone, in any position, on either team across the 80 minutes – and that was in a clash with the mighty All Blacks in Paris.
Those are the sorts of numbers outside backs would be thrilled with, for a scrum-half they are almost unheard of, yet Dupont already looked well on his way to potentially re-defining the position.
AWAKING A SLEEPING GIANT
At club level, Dupont had moved from Castres to Toulouse in the summer of 2017, when the French giants were in something of a slumber, but with a new X-factor handed the keys at No.9, they won a first Top 14 title for seven years – their 20th overall – in 2019.
By that time, their still-only-22-year-old scrum-half had overcome eight months on the sidelines with a ruptured ACL and his Toulouse teammate, All Black back-rower Jerome Kaino, summed up his unique skillset ahead of the victory over Racing 92 in the final.
“It is crazy to see the way he plays, and then hear how old he is,” said Kaino. “He is a different type of half-back, more like a loose forward slash centre. He is pretty strong for his size, loves to back himself.
“He will definitely sit up there as one of the best scrum-halves I have played with, just in terms of raw talent and potential.
“It is exciting to see what he is capable of in the future, because he is driving our team really well this year. It has been amazing as well to see him hit some form, after such a serious injury.”
Dupont was also showing what he could do in the Guinness Six Nations. Having not been selected for the Round 1 defeat to Wales in the 2019 Championship, he was on the bench for the Round 2 clash with England at Twickenham.
Things weren’t going well for France when he came on early in the second half, and they would lose the match 44-8, but Dupont provided the spark required to help Les Bleus take some optimism into Round 3 – where they would defeat Scotland – and make the No.9 jersey his own for the remaining games.
In just 34 minutes of action against England, he managed the most line breaks of any player across the entire weekend with three, topped the offload charts with four and racked up more than 90 metres with ball in hand which put him fifth across the Championship, according to the statistics powered by AWS.
A star was beginning to be born and he also shone in the remaining games as France won two of their final three to finish on a high and climb to fourth in the table.
Yet that was merely a Guinness Six Nations entrée and 2020 would be the year he would provide the main course.
LEADING A FRENCH REVOLUTION
A strong individual World Cup for Dupont in 2019 had more of the rugby world noticing the dynamic scrum-half and when Fabien Galthié took over from Jacques Brunel as France head coach ahead of the 2020 Championship, a new blueprint was developed.
Galthié had been an assistant under Brunel and knew he wanted Dupont and 20-year-old Romain Ntamack to be his half-back pairing of the present and future.
The Round 1 victory over England was Dupont’s real coming out party as he dictated play, had the defence stuck on their heels due to his electric running and produced an all-round display for the ages.
Two moments defined his performance. Firstly, his assist for Charles Ollivon’s try saw him slip through a mass of forwards, weave outside Ben Youngs and deliver a killer pass to his skipper for the score.
That attacking brilliance – while mesmerising – was a facet of the 23-year-old’s game that most were already aware of but a defensive highlight-reel play felt like something new.
Perhaps as a result of the harder edge installed by new France defence coach Shaun Edwards, Dupont produced one of the moments of the game when, with Les Bleus backed up near their own posts, he burst out of the defensive line and clattered his opposite number Willi Heinz just when England looked set to go over.
It helped France hold on for a tone-setting victory and their scrum-half maintained that level of excellence throughout the Championship.
As the stats, powered by AWS, show, no No.9 made more than Dupont’s 249 metres with ball in hand during the 2020 Guinness Six Nations as time and again he started Les Bleus’ deep, flowing breaks with his quick feet.
Yet his 54 kicks for 1,543 metres (both Championship highs) prove there is another dimension to his game outside his electric running in the open field, as a pragmatic decision-maker happy to loft up a box kick when it’s the correct call.
He produced a remarkable 12 offloads in this year’s Championship – three more than any other player, regardless of position – which speaks to his ability to keep the ball alive and the France attack moving.
As Kaino had rightly pointed out, he’s a different kind of half-back – powerful, marauding, shimmying, dummying, metre-making whirlwind offering a skillset unmatched by any other No.9.
The support lines he runs are world class and he was rewarded with a try against Ireland on Super Saturday as he kept up with flying winger Gael Fickou’s searing break down the left to cross the whitewash.
That Round 5 victory over Ireland may have officially signalled a changing of the guard as Conor Murray and Johnny Sexton – for so long the standard-bearers of northern hemisphere half-back pairings – were outplayed by Dupont and Ntamack.
The competition to be named Player of the Championship was fierce as both French half-backs, No.8 Gregory Alldritt, England duo Youngs and Maro Itoje and Ireland back-rower CJ Stander were all nominated.
But Dupont’s eye-catching performances deservedly earned him the most votes from fans and he joins an illustrious list of players including the likes of Brian O’Driscoll, Shane Williams and Alun Wyn Jones to collect the gong.
As his coach at Toulouse, Ugo Mola, told Le Parisien last year, there is something that little bit special about the scrum-half
“I often say that he was really born to play this sport,” said Mola. “He is passionate. He has such self-confidence in his abilities, but also a will to continue to discover, learn and exchange ideas.
“Antoine has the calibre of champions. There are the teams with Antoine Dupont, and those teams without him.”
Luckily for France, they are a team with Dupont and seeing just how far the conductor can take this orchestra over the next few years will be a journey well worth watching.