Widely regarded as the world’s most gifted rugby player, France captain Antoine Dupont will be carrying the hopes of a nation as he leads Les Bleus into a World Cup at home on Friday, bidding to end the hosts’ long wait for a Webb Ellis Cup.
France, still gunning for a maiden title after three final defeats, are among the hot favourites to win the sport’s quadrennial showpiece event, which runs through October 28.
Expectations surrounding the home side are sky-high as they prepare to take on New Zealand’s All Blacks in a tantalising curtain-raiser at the Stade de France near Paris, with all eyes on Dupont, France’s electrifying skipper.
“Obviously the closer we get, the more we feel the excitement, the enthusiasm, the fervour,” Dupont told reporters on Thursday, while playing down talk of the pressure weighing on the home side.
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Relaxed, demure and seemingly unfazed by global fame, French rugby’s poster boy has become the face of the tournament, his image ubiquitous in cities up and down the country – including outside the Louvre museum in Paris.
Dupont already has his wax statue at the Grévin Museum in Paris, his voice is being used by the national train company SNCF, and when Volvic revived an iconic advert from the early 2000s, featuring Zinedine Zidane, it naturally tapped the French rugby star to stand in for the football legend.
France’s scrum-half is also the hero of a comic book titled “I Will Be a Rugby Player”, published last week. It recounts his journey from a rural childhood in Castelnau-Magnoac, a small village at the foot of the Pyrénées, to leading Les Bleus to a Six Nations Grand Slam last year.
Dupont, still only 26, said he received several offers to write a biography, but opted for a comic strip that would appeal to a children’s audience too.
“I put myself in their shoes, and as a child who was passionate about rugby, I would have loved to have a comic book to read about a sportsman I admired,” he told AFP.
There is indeed plenty to inspire young fans in the French captain’s spectacular rise to the pinnacle of the sport.
Dupont grew up in the Hautes-Pyrénées, in French rugby’s southwestern heartland, getting his first taste of the sport at the age of six with local club Magnoac FC (MFC) – whose tiny ground he still visits whenever he gets a chance.
He was yet to turn 18 when his first top-flight club, Castres Olympique, named him in the senior team – requiring his mother to sign a dispensation to allow him to play.
“We could see that he was different. He was a player who understood things very quickly and could single-handedly turn a match around,” recalled his captain at the time, Rodrigo Capo Ortega, noting that fame has left the self-effacing Dupont unchanged.
The player’s exploits soon caught the eye of Top 14 giant Toulouse, France’s most titled club, whom he joined in 2017. His rise to the top suffered a setback the next year when a knee injury ruled him out for eight months. But he bounced back in style the following season, scoring three tries in his comeback match.
The French scrum-half already boasts an exceptional record, with three French championship titles (in 2019, 2021 and 2023) and a European Champions Cup (2023). He has won 49 caps for Les Bleus since his Six Nations debut in March 2017, scoring 12 tries and leading the French to its first Grand Slam in more than a decade.
The previous year he became only the third French player to be named World Rugby’s Player of the Year, two decades after France’s current head coach Fabien Galthié received the prestigious accolade.
Dupont was just 24 when Galthié picked him to captain France in November 2021, ahead of the more experienced Charles Ollivon. Since then, the scrum-half has led by example, inspiring the team’s line-breaking attacks even as he bolsters its defence with ferocious tackles.
“He’s a leader in the game. He touches the ball every three to six seconds with big decisions to make,” Galthié, himself a former scrum-half and France captain, said of his skipper after first handing him the captain’s armband. “He can lead a group of men; he is a team leader.”
With his perfect balance of craft and force, Dupont has come to define France under Galthié: a winning machine that combines the Gallic flair of old with a tighter, more disciplined style.
“He’s dynamite,” said French rugby legend Serge Blanco in a documentary about Dupont broadcast on Canal+ last week. “You just know that at any point in the game he can pick up the ball and do something special.”
Though shorter than most players, at 1m74 (5ft9), the French captain never shies away from a tackle and has built up a physique powerful enough take on the toughest opponents. He is also relentless, bringing a consistency to Les Bleus that had long eluded them.
France have beaten all of the Southern Hemisphere sides over the past three years – including a 40-25 victory over New Zealand at the Stade de France two years ago. The same stadium will be cheering them on when they face the All Blacks on Friday, hoping to get their World Cup campaign off to a flier.
Whether in the stands or facing television screens, all eyes will be on France’s star player, whose face-off with New Zealand’s veteran scrum-half Aaron Smith is likely to prove decisive.
“The stands are always full to watch a player like him,” said La Rochelle coach and former Ireland fly-half Ronan O’Gara, after losing to Dupont’s Toulouse last year. “He’s a little bit like [Cristiano] Ronaldo, [Kylian] Mbappé and [Lionel] Messi. If you mix the three of them together, you get Antoine Dupont.”