Beware the smile of Hawa Tounkara

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Young centre Hawa Tounkara, Player of the Match against Wales, continues to delight on the pitch.

She may have seemed a little surprised to receive the award, but her trademark smile is so warm that Tounkara doesn't show any embarrassment.

As if she wasn't used to being honoured. As if she were surprised that her efforts were being appreciated, recognised and, above all, rewarded. After all, it is the team that counts, not the individual. But the young player from Bobigny, who is enjoying her final adventure with the U20s at this Women's Summer Series, can be proud of where she comes from and what she has achieved.

She lives in Val d'Oise and discovered rugby at the age of 13. “At secondary school I had a PE teacher who was passionate about rugby. He wanted to set up a women's team and that's how it all started,” she recalls.

But her first image of rugby was one that put her off. “I thought it was very violent. I couldn't see myself playing rugby. I played basketball, then football for two or three years. When I was in Years 8 and 9, I switched between football and rugby, and then I stuck with rugby.”

In just a few years, the nature of rugby hasn't changed that much, but she's grown to love it more and more. Her speed has made it easier for her to avoid physical contact, and she has gradually decided to go for the impact.

“I’m getting there because I have to. Before, when I was younger and I had to tackle in rugby, I didn't like it at all. I didn't like defending, I just liked attacking. But as time went on, I grew to like it. I especially like the speed. I like it when things happen quickly, when space is created, because that's one of my strengths.”

Two moments in the match against Wales on 4th July illustrate this power and desire to go forward. In the eighth minute, after receiving a ball from Enoé Neri, Hawa raced up the middle, broke through the Welsh defence with two players still holding on, didn't slow down, was caught a metre from the line and offloaded to fly-half Mae Levy to score. Her own try in the 45th minute was all speed.

It's no surprise that she usually plays wing or fullback. What is more surprising is that the staff wanted to play her in the centre, whether against Wales or Scotland on 9 March.

“Hawa is an exceptional, versatile and talented player. She was happy to accept the centre position, which is new to her. Given the quality of the players we have, we wanted to play all our best players. She's one of them. She has shone and she hasn't finished shining,” says her coach, Caroline Suné.

“I play wing or fullback and now they've tried me in the middle and it's not too bad. I like it, I like it a lot,” confirmed Hawa Tounkara, who is being tested in the position for her ability to tackle and her linebreaks.

“If I look at my one-to-one, I don't lose many. I think that's the main reason. I tell myself that I always have to pass in the back, but I also have to keep the frequency when I'm in contact, move forward and win the gainline.”

What also characterises Hawa Tounkara is her attitude, the positivity that radiates from a smile that is fast becoming her trademark.

“Hawa is a ray of sunshine. She's always smiling,” says Caroline Suné. “People often tell me that. I'm happy,” laughs the young player, who plays for SCUF in Bobigny. “I've always been like that. I like to smile. I've been like this since I was little. Or maybe it's because of rugby.

“Even when I'm not very happy, I smile. In a team, if you have someone who smiles all the time, it feels good. When I was younger, I was shy, kept to myself and didn't talk too much. I didn't smile too much. But with rugby it came out bit by bit.”

But Hawa would have reasons not to smile all the time. “For example, she worked two jobs to survive and that affected her performance. At 1am she was still serving customers in a bar to support herself. You don't realise the sacrifices. For these girls, it's totally amateur,” continues Suné.

Hawa is aware of this, torn between her everyday life and her performances. But she refuses to complain. “I quit because it was taking up so much of my time. I worked in a bar and trained girls during the day. Because we're not professionals yet, I train the age-grade categories, I go to schools and on my days off I work in a bar.

“But then I had to stop and concentrate on my performances. It took up a lot of my time and I was often injured. I stopped a few months ago and things are much better now. I don't get injured as much and I have more time to recover.

“Financially it's a bit complicated, but because I'm at the academy I get paid every term. I get a little bit of money from my club every month. I try to make the best of it. As I still live with my mum, I help her out, so that's fine.”

Scotland v France kicks off at 17:30 BST on Tuesday 8th July. Stream it live here.