Next Sunday, two of Europe’s rugby heavyweights go head to head in Marseille – current Heineken Cup champions Toulon hosting two-time winners Munster with the prize a place in the 2014 final in Cardiff.
And lining up in the French ranks, yet another heavyweight, Mathieu Bastareaud.
Look at him up close and Basta comes across as a giant teddy-bear; he stands 1.83 metres and weighs in at a hefty 120 kilos. There is a soft innocence about his eyes and when he speaks it is almost a whisper, more treble than bass.
But on the field the 25-year-old is a burly, bruising battler who has come of age this year as an international centre and who is a key man in Toulon’s bid to retain the trophy.
Focus is perhaps the biggest difference between the 2014 Basta model and the 19-year-old kid who gatecrashed his way into the France team in 2009, only to cause a diplomatic incident in New Zealand when his claim that he had been assaulted in the street turned out to be a lie covering up an internal French team fracas.
“That tour to New Zealand was a bad time for him,” says Remi Bonfils, a close friend of Basta since they joined the Stade Français academy together.
“He doesn’t talk about it. As far as I am concerned it is a closed chapter. But it is part of life. We all make mistakes.”
Bonfils, who is still at Stade Français, first came across Bastareaud when they were kids.
”We are both from the Paris region. I used to play for Villiers-sur-Marne and he was with Creteil. We were 12, maybe 13 and he was already this big beast.
“When you are kids in France you don’t have definite positions but he was obviously the key player. They would put him in the centre and get the ball to him as much as possible and let him go. Even then he was hard to stop. So not much has changed since then.”
In 2011, Bastareaud called time on the French capital. Stade Français was a club in turmoil and the Toulon revolution, inspired by the comic book millionaire Mourad Boudjallal, was underway.
“Basta needed to have a new objective,” says Bonfils. “Toulon were recruiting a lot of new players. And I think he needed to cut from Paris for a bit. And maybe he wanted to follow in the footsteps of Tana Umaga.”
Ah yes. Umaga. The All Black centre who will be remembered in Britain and Ireland as the man who single-handedly derailed the 2005 Lions with a cynical spear tackle on Brian O’Driscoll in the opening exchanges of the first Test.
In France, he is a divinity, the man who came to Toulon when they were in the second division and paved the way for so many other leading names to join the Top 14. Which is why he is Basta’s role model.
“I would say that is an ideal choice for Basta,” says former Wallaby centre Morgan Turinui, once of Stade Français and now in Lille.
“Umaga started off as a pretty one-dimensional player, a winger who couldn’t pass the ball. He was a finisher. But he turned himself into the best centre in the world through sheer hard work, dedication and consistency.”
Turinui is in no doubt that Batareaud’s move to Toulon has made him.
“He is on the way to becoming the complete footballer now. His passing left and right has improved, he has added small elements to his game.
“He has always used his God-given strength well. But the things he did poorly in the past, he has worked on. Fitness is one them. Three years ago, he would go on a run and you wouldn’t see him again for five minutes. He is much fitter now.”
The move also brought him into contact with two of the modern game’s finest players, England World Cup winner Jonny Wilkinson and Turinui’s old Wallaby teammate Matt Giteau.
“Hopefully I have been able to help him,” says a modest Giteau, capped 92 times by Australia.
“But someone like Jonny (Wilkinson) has been key for him in terms of understanding the work ethic and realising you have to keep practicing. He can’t help it really. I mean, I am continually learning off Jonny.”
Turinui is impressed by the Giteau-Bastareaud partnership.
“It is the Ying and the Yang, they are a dangerous combination. Toulon use Basta as a decoy a lot. He attracts a lot of attention and that leaves space for Giteau. And it can work the other way as well. Matt’s pace and vision can create an opening for Basta.”
Bastareaud has only scored two tries in the Top 14 this season but Giteau has benefitted from his partner’s work with nine touchdowns. The Australian certainly sees more than the one-dimensional crash-ball warrior who pitches up for France.
“Mathieu always takes tacklers with him so I am grateful for the extra space he creates. You can see how dangerous he is but when his confidence is up then he goes to another level
“He is continually working on his kicking, passing. He is a lot more than a crash runner. His short passing, his offloading, so many aspects have become top quality. It isn’t fair to pigeon-hole him.
“He has matured in terms of his work ethic. He wants to improve. Now, rugby is more than just fun. He wants to achieve things.’
Bastareaud has already played his part in taking down one Irish province, Leinster, in the quarter-finals. Don’t be surprised to see him doing it all over again against Munster.
©Barney Spender 2014
A version of this story first appeared in the Irish Examiner April 4, 2014
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