Few Frenchmen personify the role of captain as expertly as the emblematic figure of Guilhem Guirado as he prepares to lead his side into the 2019 Guinness Six Nations campaign.
Taking up the role in 2016 under the stewardship of Guy Noves, the Ceret-born hooker set about revitalising French ambitions in the Championship.
Securing third spot in the table two years ago under Guirado’s watchful eye, the Toulon man began to translate the form that saw him claim the 2014-15 Champions Cup title into the international set-up.
With head coach Jacques Brunel naming his 31-man squad for the Guinness Six Nations opener against France in Paris on Wednesday, Guirado is ready to take on the best of the continent.
A fresh-faced Guirado pitched up on the domestic scene in 2006 for hometown outfit Perpignan with the world at his feet.
At just 23-years-old, the 5ft11 hooker had tasted domestic success for the first time – playing an integral role in firing the Catalan outfit to a seventh Top 14 title.
A year earlier he had earned international recognition with Guirado called up to the French set-up for the first time ahead of the 2008 Six Nations Championship.
With Les Bleus leading Italy, Guirado was called upon off the replacements bench to make his international debut and he successfully saw out the rest of the match to set-up a 25-13 win.
He had to bide his time to make his first Test start however, going six matches before being given the nod to start for France.
Battling for a berth alongside the experienced figures of William Servat and Dimitri Szarzewski, Guirado missed out on a spot in France’s 2010 Grand Slam-winning side.
But by 2011 Guirado worked himself back into the standings – earning a spot in the France side that fell just short of England in lifting back-to-back Championship titles.
His form also earned him a spot at the 2011 World Cup, where France saw their title hopes denied by New Zealand.
After a year out of the frame, Guirado returned and by 2014 had established himself as first choice under Philippe Saint-André.
Following the 2015 World Cup, Guirado was handed the captain’s armband by incoming coach Novès to spark a revival in French fortunes on the international stage.
And his Championship reign started in perfect fashion as he helped to guide his side to a 23-21 victory over Italy with Virimi Vakatawa, Damien Chouly and Hugo Bonneval all crossing the whitewash.
The successes did not end there though for the Toulon star as France got the better of Ireland in Paris in a hard-fought 10-9 win.
Despite going off for ten minutes in the blood-bin midway through the second half, it is a testament to his spirit that Guirado returned to ensure his side saw out their first win over Ireland since 2011.
Although France came unstuck throughout the rest of the competition, Guirado featured in every one of the games to help them to a successive fourth spot in the Championship.
Fortunes improved for France in 2017 by clinching a third-placed finish – their best since 2011 – as Les Bleus saw off Wales in a dramatic 20-18 skirmish on the final weekend.
Although France could not better their results in 2018, Guirado again proved a central figure by featuring in all but one of the championship’s matches.
READY FOR 2019
It’s been a busy year already for Guirado after announcing his decision to leave Toulon in November in favour of joining Montpellier from the start of next season.
With 63 international caps to his name, few players bring as much experience to their respective Guinness Six Nations sides as Guirado, only Louis Picamoles and Morgan Parra have more caps in the French squad.
Along with his leadership qualities, Guirado pitches up in Paris for the opener against Wales off the back of a 2018 that witnessed four tries in three Autumn international matches.
Leading from the front, the Frenchman scored a double in the defeat to Fiji after exhibiting his try scoring abilities in Tests against Argentina and South Africa.
But it is his defensive capabilities that ensure his spot on the team sheet, making 87 per cent of tackles in seven matches and making a grand 92 tackles in total.
If Guirado can perform to the same spellbinding level as the Autumn international campaign, the opposition could have trouble containing the marauding hooker in what he has revealed could be his final Championship.