Monday 16 September 2019

Mercurial Jalibert facing baptism of fire

Stander will pile pressure on young out-half seen as France’s new hero

France's Matthieu Jalibert. Photo: Getty Images
France's Matthieu Jalibert. Photo: Getty Images
Cian Tracey

Cian Tracey

Stop me if you think you've heard this one before, but France have a new, exciting, young out-half of whom big things are expected.

We've been down this road plenty of times in recent years, and it was only in November that Anthony Belleau was declared the next great hope.

Yet here we are, less than three months later and Matthieu Jalibert is the latest youngster tasked with bringing joie de vivre back to a French side that is struggling to capture the imagination of their own supporters.

The 19-year-old pivot, who is in his debut season with Bordeaux, is uncapped at senior level and has never played in the Champions Cup.

There has been more than one cautionary tale about judging a player from a YouTube highlights reel, but Jalibert is already putting a collection of sensational individual tries together.

His stunning solo effort against Agen in the Top 14 in November garnered plenty of attention and when he followed that against Newcastle Falcons in the Challenge Cup a few weeks later, the public began to take notice.

Closer to home, the excitement around Jalibert has been growing for a couple of years.

Similar to Jordan Larmour, anyone who has watched him closely from a young age speaks about a player with huge potential.

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Jalibert is very much in the Joey Carbery mould and his devastating step has already embarrassed several experienced defenders.

He has the electric pace to match the bamboozling footwork but controlling a Six Nations game in the cauldron that is the Stade de France is an altogether different challenge to anything he has faced in his fledging career.

As with anyone so young, question marks hang over his ability to run a game, while his kicking isn't always at the standard expected at this level.

Deep in his analysis chamber at Carton House this week, Joe Schmidt will have been devising a game-plan to nullify his threat.

A large feature of that will be CJ Stander running down Jalibert's channel every time he gets the ball.

Former Munster scrum-half Mike Prendergast came up against Jalibert, who featured three times for the France U-20s last year, when his Oyonnax side hosted Bordeaux in the Top 14 at the end of September.

"He played full-back against us, on a wet night at home," Prendergast tells the Irish Independent.

"It was one of his first games with Bordeaux actually but I had heard of his name in the previous few months that he was the new kid on the block.

"Even that night, you could see his running talent. He's a player that can play any position realistically."

As a former scrum-half, Prendergast knows the importance of Maxime Machenaud's role on Saturday as the experienced Racing player will be expected to take plenty of responsibility on himself.

Yet, the Limerick native believes that Jalibert has the temperament to handle the occasion.

"He is a super talent. He's full of confidence, got a really good skill-set.

"His kicking game isn't the strongest but he's very good at the line. He's got a really good passing game and he'll just do stuff off the cuff, which France have always liked in their 10s.

"I think (Jacques) Brunel is backing him and probably saying 'OK, we might come up a bit short in the Six Nations' but they're looking to build towards the World Cup."

The France head coach worked with Jalibert at Bordeaux, which is a large reason why he is expected to get the nod ahead of Belleau when Brunel names his team this morning.

Bernard Jackman spent six years in Grenoble, working with Prendergast and he still has his finger on the pulse of French rugby.

The former Ireland hooker and current Dragons boss is equally excited about Jalibert's potential, but he has reservations about France's tendency not to give young out-halves a proper, extended chance.

"Realistically, it's a big learning curve for him," Jackman maintains.

"He's not 100pc sure if he is number one in Bordeaux. He is very talented but in a game of this magnitude with a patched-together game-plan, it's hard to see how Ireland won't manage him.

"If you're a young player and you're getting your opportunity, if you are overly worried about making mistakes and being hooked off or not playing again next week, it's hard.

"Even when I think back to ROG and (David) Humphreys, it was really important to both of them that they felt like they had Eddie's (O'Sullivan) confidence and they were number one.

"Then there was that battle to get that. They were both experienced at that stage but this kid is only coming out of the espoirs (Academy) at Bordeaux so it's an even bigger ask for him. But Brunel knows him. The smartest thing he could do is to settle on a pair of half-backs for the whole competition because that hasn't happened often enough for France recently."

As for the player himself, Jalibert admitted this week that Owen Farrell and Beauden Barrett are the two out-halves he looks up to the most.

Coming up against Johnny Sexton, it will very much be a case of master versus apprentice.

Saturday will be a baptism of fire for Jalibert, and whether or not he lives up to expectation, the hope is that he is not discarded as quickly to France's out-half scrap heap.

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