Peter Bills: The real Bastareaud
Les Bleus’ 17st 7lb man-mountain recovers from traumatic year in the spotlight to take central role in Lievremont’s plans
"He fell into the cauldron of magic potion when young" -- Christophe Dominici.
When Mathieu Bastareaud ran in two tries for France against Scotland with that hulking, Lomu-esque stride of his, it was for some of his countrymen a supreme act of redemption.
This, after all, was someone who had almost committed suicide by flinging himself into the Seine last summer, one whose professional reputation was deemed by many to beyond rescue, with even his Union president seeking his expulsion from the sport.
For others though, the brace of tries served merely to further besmirch a national jersey worn with such distinction by generations of cherished French heroes; for them, no exploits, no matter how profound, could ever erase the stigma attached to every cap he earns.
He is either the most obvious threat to Ireland's ongoing Grand Slam defence at the Stade De France tomorrow evening, or the weakest link in a defensive chain ready to be exploited by Leinster's dancing midfield double act.
Carrying 17st 7lbs, he will dwarf opposite number Brian O'Driscoll tomorrow. "I'll treat this like any other opposition player," quipped the Irish captain this week. "It's just that he's four stone heavier!"
It is little surprise that Bastareaud continues to divide opinions on and off the field. For, even at the mere age of 21, his life has been played out in such a vivid and controversial display of contradictions.
At Marcoussis this week, France's rugby HQ, it was revealed that Bastareaud the player "is utterly without fear and has so much confidence." Strange to recall, then, that it was precisely the opposite which got him in trouble in the first place.
After Bastareaud lost consciousness in his hotel room on his country's summer tour of New Zealand, it wouldn't be long until he sensationally propelled himself into the consciousness of millions of sports fans throughout the globe.
"L'affaire Bastareaud" contained within the unholy trinity of ingredients destined to cause a sensation -- excess alcohol, violence and lies. There may have been sex, but there's a good chance he either doesn't remember or else made it up.
The facts are simply these. Bastareaud claimed to have been attacked in Wellington in the early hours of June 20 following the All Blacks' 14-10 win against the French, in the process suffering a suspected broken eye socket and needed stitches to facial cuts. In fact, he had fallen over a coffee table in his hotel room.
It was the gaping distance between claim and fact -- he confessed four days later on his club's (Stade Francais) website -- which really caused the stir. Diplomatic channels had been clogged with anger; conscious of their hosting of the 2011 World Cup, New Zealand PM John Key apologised profusely to his French counterpart.
Unfortunately for Bastareaud, CCTV cameras uncovered the inconvenient truth; he had walked into his hotel injured. Hence, the story of an attack could not possibly stand up. Truth was, neither could he.
A glimpse into his background offers the reasons why he felt it necessary to be so duplicitous.
Firstly, his family, who originally hail from Guadalupe, are very religious and protecting them was the player's self-confessed initial motivation in deceiving all and sundry. At school, he was often reluctant to speak, lest he make a mistake in front of his peers.
Secondly, he was overly conscious of the fidelity owed to those who had accelerated his remarkable rise through the rugby ranks. A cousin of the France and Arsenal centre-back, William Gallas, Bastareaud began playing rugby at the age of seven and his progress was spotted early on by the French federation.
A product of Creteil rugby club, he burst on to the scene at the 2007 U-19 World Cup in Belfast. Former France coach Bernard Laporte selected him in his squad for a tour to Australia that year when he was still playing amateur rugby with Massy, a third division outfit in the Paris suburbs.
He was slated to join Stade Francais, but he had to withdraw because of an injury. Their flamboyant and controversial owner, Max Guazzini, would soon get his man.
Viewed through the twin prisms of his family upbringing and his rapid professional graduation, it was clear that Bastareaud had a lot to lose last summer. And when it looked like he might lose it all, he clearly reached a point where what remained -- his own life -- seemed worthless to him.
"I was overcome with shame," he would say later.
Mercifully, he declined a drastic final solution and sought professional guidance within a psychiatric unit.
Their patient counselling guided him through a summer that coincided with a rigorous schedule of visiting schools and rugby clubs as part of the punishment accompanying the French Federation's three-month suspension.
The diplomatic furore was diluted and, despite being roundly booed on his return to Stade colours away to Bayonne, his rehabilitation has been delicately handled by a predominantly forgiving French public.
What Guazzini labelled "jolly japes" was perhaps a typically inaccurate gauge of the public's mood, but the response to his return has been mostly positive, with the prevailing mood being one of clemency for the travails of naive youth.
"Everyone does something stupid when they're young," says Trevor Brennan, the former Irish international now based in France. "He was only 20 and whether you're Brian O'Driscoll or Trevor Brennan, you do silly things when you're 20."
His national coach, Marc Lievremont, argues that the player was in sackcloth for long enough.
"I asked him to make a public apology to his team-mates and New Zealand rugby, I asked him to play well for his club, and I asked him to go out and work with young players.
"He's done all those things. It's true he lied and damaged his team and the French Rugby Federation, but you have to know how to forgive people. He suffered over the story, with a pretty traumatic summer.
"Even though in France the affair took on a massive scale, disproportionate in my view, he is only 20-years-old and he didn't kill anyone."
Importantly, his team-mates are behind him which, as observers of the vaguely analogous case of Stephen Ireland can attest, remains a not insignificant fillip for the once troubled phenomenon.
"I also think that in saying what he said, he was far from imagining the consequences of this lie and that he was taken over by the events," is captain Thierry Dusautoir's view of the extraordinary series of events.
Murrayfield demonstrated that Bastareaud has the ability to cause a ruckus on the field, rather than off it. Ireland will provide a different challenge and Lievremont may have to adjust his rushing defence, as attack coach Alan Gaffney will have spied a few weaknesses.
Ireland will also covet quick ruck ball in order to unsettle the big man out wide, hoping to release O'Driscoll and co in the outside channels. "He's a powerful guy," adds O'Driscoll, himself the centre of dutiful praise from his opponent this week.
"He looks to be one of their very much in-form players. He gives them great go-forward, and he's a quick enough guy considering the size of him.
"He seems to be a handful, but like any centre pairings that myself and Darce play against, we'd like to think we'll give them as much trouble as they'll give us. Eighteen stone might move brilliantly in a straight line: it doesn't always necessarily shift as well when you run to the side."
As his own centre partner, Yannick Jauzion, confirms, Bastareaud is deceptively quick and he has decent hands. However, like the fictional Obelix who fell into the magic potion as a child, his strength remains his primary asset.