Monday 19 March 2018

Massive talent Bastareaud remains haunted by many demons

Incredible bulk Bastareaud flourishing again after Kiwi scandal as meditation aids his struggle with inner turmoil

Mathieu Bastareaud will spearhead the French challenge against Ireland, again keeping a close eye on Johnny Sexton
Mathieu Bastareaud will spearhead the French challenge against Ireland, again keeping a close eye on Johnny Sexton
David Kelly

David Kelly

FOR five minutes this afternoon, some time between the hours of 12 and 2, Mathieu Bastareaud will retreat into the inner sanctum of his mind and seek to free himself of all the thoughts and doubts that still persistently confront him.

"Sometimes my mind gets tired from thinking," he says. "I need to disconnect."

At once a figure recognised throughout the sporting world, it remains one of the constant anxieties of France's incredible bulk that he still struggles to recognise himself.

Last November, this often troubled soul once more sought the solace of sports psychologist, Meriem Salmi, in his quest to navigate the tortured tributaries of one who seems perennially dogged by a battle to validate his life.

"I've always been afraid of failure, the judgment in school exams, or rugby," he said last November.

"Simply, I do not like to disappoint. Knowing that you're going to be judged … I doubt my ability.

"I'm always asking myself questions when in the end, I have a very good life. Everything is going well for me. I play in one of the biggest clubs in Europe, with what is best in the world, but …"

Now 27, Bastareaud's personal and professional life has been a violent, rollercoaster ride - a French international at 21, he has conquered Europe with club Toulon, twice, and country.

But he has also spent three years in international wilderness, a product of a bizarre incident in New Zealand where a fabricated lie concocted to conceal his drunkenness ultimately resulted in an effort to fling himself into the Seine in an attempted suicide.

The latter event was more than six years ago and forced a prompt three-year cessation of his international career; there was a three-year gap between 2010 and 2013 before his ninth cap begat the tenth.

A move from Stade Francais to Toulon seemed to re-invigorate and ground him all at once but, it is clear, instead of being fully exorcised, his demons had merely been cast in temporary hibernation.

When Toulon were torn apart - ironically by Stade - at the end of last year, Bastareaud endured a torrid breakdown on live French TV.

"There are times when you have to face up to things," he grieved. "Since the start of the season, I'm a zombie. I haven't been able to find form. You have to know when to say 'stop'. I've arrived at breaking point."

It was a sadly familiar signpost even if, as it seems, he arrives in Dublin this week as a rampaging force of nature in the finest of fettle once can expect of a marauding 111kg midfield enforcer.

After his emotional outburst, he went to stay with his mother on the ground floor of her less-than-modest public housing scheme. There he could find sympathy, at least; if not a solution to his woes.


Creteil, south of Paris, is a typical working-class area intimately associated with poverty and crime pouring from its charmless concrete turrets; Bastareaud, another of its multitude of typically working-class kids, enduring a complicated childhood amidst inter-game fights and 24-hour police presence.

His Guadalupe-born parents divorced when he was three and he lived with his mother, Dania. Sport soon became his escape from les banlieues - as it had done for French soccer star, William Gallas, his cousin, a decade earlier.

His relationship with his father seems complicated; he was encouraged to play rugby by him but there does seem to be acceptance issues, a sense of disconnection that has never been fully repaired since the break-up of his parents' marriage.

His first call-up to an international side, the U-19s, should have invoked pride and joy in his father; instead, it elicited little enthusiasm. As he took a nap on the couch, the son woke him.

"Papa, I have made the team!" The father roused, looked at his son, witheringly. "Ok, is that all?" he asked drowsily. "And then he went back to sleep!" recalls Bastareaud.

Family still means a lot to him though, which is why the embarrassing events in New Zealand during the 2009 tour caused an emotional earthquake which, palpably, still exposes lasting emotional scars.

Bastareaud claimed to have been attacked in Wellington - by a Polynesian/Maori group - 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 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, as he was drunk at the time.

"I was overcome with shame," he would say later. Mercifully, he declined a drastic final solution, suicide, and sought professional guidance within a psychiatric unit, where he first encountered Salmi.

This 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 ban.

The sport continued without him and then national coach Marc Lievremont seemed to dismiss his chances of ever appearing for his country again but, after three years' absence, he returned to form the fulcrum of his country's 2010 Grand Slam, scoring the only tries of his international career against Scotland.

At Toulon, he has predominantly flourished amidst their vast array of rugby galacticos and the side have been crowned European champions in successive years, with the centre claiming the man of the match award in the 2013 final in Dublin against Clermont.

He has been a scourge of Irish teams too, twice helping to dump Munster and Leinster out in the knockout stages and assistant coach Richie Murphy is mindful of the threat he poses this week.

"It's pretty difficult," says Murphy, mindful that Johnny Sexton (right) was concussed by him in last March. "He's a unique individual. His ball-carry is incredible so we have to make sure that our first-up shots on him are very, very good.

"If you look at the weekend I think he pushed off all of the Scottish front-rowers at some stage during the game with his carrying. So there's that power, and he's actually pretty quick, and he gets his legs apart so he's very hard to chop; he's a special kind of player.

"The other thing is he makes space for others so you've got Wes Fofana playing with him with his speed and agility, his ability to chase offload channels and his support play for the likes of Huget and Teddy Thomas, they're a pretty good force."

He has played in 13 of the last 14 games for his country, albeit he will only partner the gifted Fofana for the ninth time this weekend; he has tried to develop his game, passing eight times last weekend, compared to 12 typically boisterous carries.

"He's interacting more freely with the public, making jokes on social media and that's something we haven't seen before, being relaxed in himself," says French journalist Sebastian Duval.

"He was hugely impacted by everything in New Zealand and he was very guarded with all media but he knows that all the media aren't against him. And he knows that in Paris, he can walk down the street and nobody recognises him.

"He seems to be a bit more laid-back. Maybe he is growing up. But he remains a fragile player."

The irony is that, as comfortable as he may seem to be on the field, he is utterly vulnerable off it.

He remains constantly torn by the brilliance others see in him and the frailties he sees within himself.

Which is why, this weekend, he will withdraw into himself to address his weaknesses before he dares to show the world his awesome strengths.

Irish Independent

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