It isn’t quite back to the future in the world of French rugby but for those of us of a certain age who remember a fleet-footed centre called Eric Bonneval, it wasn’t far off when we saw the 23-year-old Hugo Bonneval, as in “son of”, canter out at the Stade de France to win his first Test cap against Italy on Sunday.
Hugo, who plays full-back for Stade Français in Paris, is a couple of inches taller and probably ten kilos heavier than his old man but such is the way with modern rugby. There is no doubt, however, that he is a chip off the old block. The rugby DNA runs deep.
Not necessarily that Hugo is comfortable with being bracketed with his father. Since his parents divorced when he was young, there has been a gulf between the two. French journalists whisper it quietly: “don’t ask about his dad“.
Prior to the match against Italy, Hugo was sharp in his response to the journalists’ questions.
“I was born in Toulouse,“ he said. “My father was a player for Toulouse and for France. I am Parisian. I have always lived in Paris. I don’t have a problem with that.
“But I want to do my own thing. He has his story, let me start mine. We can do the sums at the end. For the moment, I am Hugo, 23 years old, I am starting.“
Unfortunately, the comparisons are inevitable. They always are when a son follows his father into any given trade, whether it be the military, the media or the priesthood. Hang on…
Bonneval fils is just the latest in a long line to follow in his father’s footsteps into the national team. The English have the Farrells, the Welsh have the Quinnells, the Scots the Beatties and the Irish have the Murphys – perhaps the imperial rugby family, the only one that can boast three generations of internationals in grandfather Noel Snr (30 caps 1930-1933), father Noel (41 caps 1958-1969) and son Kenny (11 caps 1990-1992).
It goes down to the southern hemisphere as well: the Olivers in New Zealand, the du Plessis in South Africa. You even have a few cross-national father-son duos. Wynand Claasen captained South Africa, his son Antonie has five French caps to his name, most recently against the All Blacks in November. England Vunipola boys can take their lead from dad Fe’ao who played for Tonga.
The important thing for all of these sons following in footsteps is to make their own mark and Bonneval seems to have made a good start in doing that.
Bonneval père, who played mostly at centre for Toulouse with whom he won two French championships and with France, played 18 tests and enjoyed one memorable Five Nations tournament in 1987 when he scored five tries including a hat-trick against Scotland, a game that France only won narrowly 28-22.
It all began in July 1984 when he made his debut against New Zealand in Auckland. France lost the match that day but Bonneval made an indelible impression with his first touchdown in French colours.
It was a golden age for le French flair as Eric teamed up with the likes of Denis Charvet, Didier Cordoniou, Philippe Sella and Serge Blanco. Legendary names.
But, as we saw at the Stade de France on Sunday, Hugo has made a blinding start. He didn’t have a lot to do but did ghost from nowhere on to Yoann Huget’s shoulder to take the pass and score the third try as France waltzed to their second successive victory, so matching his father‘s achievement in Auckland.
It was a finish that had France coach Philippe Saint-Andre, who played against Eric and followed him into the French side, purring with pleasure.
“Ze dad was queeck,” said Saint-Andre, “but ze son is queecker.”
Bonneval has certainly begun his story. Let’s see where it goes. And enjoy the ride.
©Barney Spender 2014