There is no doubt who is the form rugby player in the world right now.
Antoine Dupont, the French halfback, is racking up highlights for fun and for the past year it seems defensive patterns, at both club and country, have not found a way to deal with him.
We should first acknowledge that France use their halfbacks in a different way to the rest of the world.
The concept of ‘le petit general’, directing play off nine rather than ten, has long been embedded in the way the French play the game. Indeed, France coach Fabien Galthié played this very role as France tipped up the All Blacks at semi-final time in 1999, so Dupont is going to be given licence to run the game with greater authority than some of his recent predecessors and certainly more so than his current group of opponents.
If you took the number off Dupont’s back and watched his highlights, you would have a hard time picking exactly what position he was playing. He certainly doesn’t play halfback in the way any of the southern hemisphere sides play the game.
He doesn’t go ruck to the ruck, often leaving clearance from the base to whoever happens to be closest. He does have a pass off the ground, but we rarely see it ripped out in anger, pinning defenders while runners are put away outside. When he defends, you are more likely to see him two or three channels wide, sticking hits on than defending at the ruck itself.
Rather, from the base of the scrum, he plays super flat, taking sideways steps, looking for that lazy defender to beat or finding his ball runners, who now run more at gaps than bodies and then run aggressive support lines. His starting position for moves is regularly from the ten or 12 spots.
In my initial viewing I thought he simply gambled well on halfback lines and was rewarded as such. But it is much more than that.
He does link really well with his loose forwards and his inside backs, but the number of times he interchanges passes with his wingers is just extraordinary. This is down to sheer hard work and excellent leg speed.
He doesn’t look like a sprinter with that low centre of gravity that allows him to launch into tackles and bump defenders who don’t apply themselves correctly, but he has some serious toe over 20 or 30 metres.
He runs the support lines of a halfback, an inside back and a loose forward dependent on his starting position.
This clip is three minutes long but well worth your attention. It is the diversity of outcomes I found most impressive.
Among the plethora of videos on Dupont, this is the one that best represents his overall game. There are not a lot of highlights from traditional halfback passing, but those support lines are impressive.
While he is a creative genius in his own right, he is also benefiting from the explosion in attacking intent from the French loose forwards. Galthié has the French loose forwards playing totally differently from all the other Six Nations loose forward trios.
Firstly, they have reverted to the traditional role of the loose forward. They play with real attacking intent when they have the ball, unlike other trios who have sadly become almost purely defensive units. They use Gregory Alldritt superbly as a ball carrier in space, and they link and transition with their halves like we haven’t seen for some time.
Captain Charles Ollivon is a try-scoring menace, while Alldritt – who was man of the match in all three of France’s home games in the 2020 Six Nations – carried 66 times for 400 metres in that tournament.
Top carrier CJ Stander led with 78 runs and did not register on the top metre eaters. The French are running at gaps like no other, just in time for the faster game being promoted by World Rugby.
Ollivon and Alldritt have played 19 Tests each for a combined try total of 11. No one in the Six Nations is playing like this.
Dupont, the loose forwards and the speed of the French back line have been a breath of fresh air for international rugby in the last 12 months. With some key players missing for Ireland this weekend, the defensive organisation close to the ruck is likely to suffer. Enter the entertainers.
This weekend Ireland need to find a way to reduce the number of second touches that Dupont gets. This is where the danger comes. He creates space by running sideways and then follows his ball runners expertly.
Ireland will need to make sure they stick him with those first tackles and then make sure he is not getting off the ground fast enough to get that second touch. Watch for him being buried under ruck after ruck in the early stages.
It is easier said than done, of course. You have to catch him first.