France’s giant killer

Thierry Dusautoir is looking for another big southern hemisphere scalp.

He’s known in France as le Destructeur Sombre (the Dark Destroyer), a nickname bestowed on flanker Thierry Dusautoir after his spellbinding display against New Zealand in the 2007 World Cup quarter-final. It was a game few expected France to win; the hosts of the tournament had lost to Argentina in their opening match while the All Blacks had swept all before them in the pool stage.

But in a match of shuddering intensity the French withstood a ferocious battering in the first half to strike back in the second period. Tries from Dusautoir and Yannick Jauzion handed France a 20-18 victory that only the most patriotic Frenchmen had predicted. But it wasn’t so much Dusautoir’s offensive game that caught the eye that October night, it was his defence and the staggering 38 tackles he made, more than the combined total of the All Blacks. Jerry Collins, Richie McCaw, Ali Williams, they were all cut in half by a player standing 1.87m tall, weighing 95kg and playing in only his eighth Test.

Nearly three years later and Dusautoir is captain of France and the most complete flanker in the European game. Having led his country to the Grand Slam this year, and his club side, Toulouse, to their fourth European Cup crown, Dusautoir has never experienced such success in his life, a life that began in West Africa 28 years ago.

Dusautoir was born in Abidjan, Ivory Coast, the son of a French soldier and an Ivorian mother. Thierry was 10 when his father returned to France with his family and settled in Perigeaux, in the picturesque region of Dordonne. Monsieur Dusautoir encouraged his son to take up judo so he could learn the art of discipline and the buzz of competition. Dusautoir enjoyed the sport but as he grew into a teenager all his friends played rugby. When he asked his parents if he could join the local rugby club his mother wouldn’t hear of it because of the fate that had befallen Max Brito during the 1995 World Cup. The Ivory Coast winger was left a quadriplegic after being caught in a ruck in a pool match against Tonga and Dusautoir’s mother feared for her son’s safety.

‘Ultimately it was my friends who persuaded her to let me play,’ Dusautoir later recalled. ‘I started when I was 16, through a friend of mine who brought me to a rugby match. I came and played and it went really well. I loved it straight away so I kept it up.’

As he turned from a boy into a man, Dusautoir combined his rugby with his studies, graduating in chemical engineering, and joining the Colomiers club. From there he signed for Biarritz and helped them win consecutive Top 14 titles in 2005 and 2006. As a result Dusautoir came to the attention of the then France coach, Bernard Laporte, winning his first cap in the 62-14 rout of Romania in the summer of 2006. Five months later Dusautoir was involved in another rout, though this time France were on the receiving end as the touring All Blacks humbled France 47-3. Dusautoir was dropped with many in the French press saying he wasn’t up to international standard, and it appeared Laporte agreed when he omitted him from his 2007 World Cup squad.

Dusautoir, who by now had joined Toulouse from Biarritz, went on holiday but fate intervened and Elvis Vermeulen withdrew from the World Cup through injury. Laporte summoned Dusautoir and he arrived with the air of a man who had nothing to lose. ‘I decided to lock all my doubts in a closet and do everything to win a berth in the team,’ recalled Dusautoir. ‘The coach said everybody would have an opportunity to show his worth. I believed him, worked hard and it paid off.’

In what was a disappointing World Cup for France overall – they lost to England in the semi-final and to Argentina in the third place play-off – the French could at least claim to have unearthed a world-class player in Dusautoir. Les Bleus’ defensive coach, Dave Ellis, offers a fascinating insight into what makes Dusautoir such an effective loose forward: ‘The thing about Thierry is that he gets close to people before making the tackle and then uses his body in a way that generates a lot of force,’ says the Englishman. ‘He came from judo where he learnt about body position and the importance of where he positions his feet. A lot of the time, he stays on his feet while making the tackle and that means he can immediately get into position to make the next tackle … he also has no respect for reputations. He’s too busy building one for himself.’

Dusautoir’s reputation grew in stature in 2008 under new national coach Marc Lièvremont, and the man they were now calling the Dark Destroyer was one of the few regulars as Lièvremont selected more than 70 players in his bid to find a squad capable of challenging for the 2011 Rugby World Cup. By the summer of 2009 Lièvremont had a clearer idea of his squad, and to lead them he chose Dusautoir. His reign as captain began last summer with an unforgettable 27-22 win over New Zealand in Dunedin and, though France lost the second Test 14-10 Dusautoir had more than repaid his faith in his coach.

‘He inspires as a player and he is a good communicator,’ says Liè vremont. ‘He has respect within the French organisation and the respect of everybody within the game. He is good for French rugby.’

In his first match in charge of France on home soil Dusautoir led his country to another memorable victory, the 20-13 defeat of South Africa. But the euphoria generated by that victory vanished two weeks later when the French suffered an embarrassing 39-12 reverse against New Zealand. It was typically French, a sublime win followed by a ridiculous loss, a weakness that Dusautoir has subsequently vowed to eradicate from the French psyche: ‘One of my objectives for this French team is that we start winning big games one after another,’ he said prior to the start of the 2010 Six Nations.

‘In the autumn we had a beautiful victory over South Africa but then lost by a big margin to a very good New Zealand side at Marseilles. We didn’t play as we should. It was disappointing.’

A few weeks later Dusautoir made good on his promise, leading France to their first Grand Slam since 2004. They were made to dig deep in their final championship game, against a stubborn English side, but Dusautoir inspired his men to a 12-10 victory with another fiercely committed performance.

Yet like so many great loose forwards – be they Michael Jones or Richard Hill or Schalk Burger – Dusautoir’s off-field persona couldn’t be more different to the face he wears to work. ‘It is difficult to get two words out of him,’ said Ellis, in describing Dusautoir away from the field. ‘He just sits there calmly and takes everything in, then he gets on to the field and changes into a monster. He’s the Dark Destroyer.’

By Gavin Mortimer

– This article appears in the Springbok-France match programme, on sale at Newlands for R20