He’s a hulking 1.83m, 110 kgs brute and the bad boy of world rugby. He once catapulted his own country into a major diplomatic row with New Zealand after he’d lied to police in Wellington to cover up getting drunk.
So is Mathieu Bastareaud, the French centre who will line up against Brian O’Driscoll in Saturday’s Six Nations clash between France and Ireland in Paris, just a thinly disguised thug? Far from it, says the man who knew him as well as anyone.
Australian Ewen McKenzie coached Bastareaud at Stade Francais and says he’s one of the quietest, shyest boys he’s ever coached. The McKenzie dossier is a fascinating counter argument to the sensational headlines about the big, bruising French three quarter who represents a massive threat to Ireland’s challenge at Stade de France this Saturday.
Bastareaud was recalled for this tournament after being axed by coach Marc Lievremont following his lies on the tour in New Zealand last June. There was a huge diplomatic fuss after extensive police enquiries were found to have been an utter waste of time when Bastareaud confessed.
The boy may have been crazy to concoct such a story. But for sure, he can play rugby as his two tries against Scotland at Edinburgh last Sunday proved.
But a bad boy? McKenzie smiles. “He might look it and when he gets out onto the field he just explodes. He’s a big boy and knows how to use that strength and size.
“But Mathieu is a quiet, shy, attentive lad. I had no issues with him at all. He’s a good kid. It was a big surprise to me what happened in New Zealand on that tour because he is certainly not arrogant. He’s a coach’s dream in a way.”
McKenzie helped Bastareaud’s development through the junior ranks at Stade Francais until he was a first team regular and then a member of the French national squad.
“I’ve got a lot of time for him. When I first met him, he was a really big kid even then but one just on the fringes. Yet in 12 months he went from the fringes of our squad to our first team and then the French national team and that was quite a transition,” he said.
“Maybe it all came too fast for him. But everyone makes mistakes in life and everyone matures at a different pace. He’s still only a young guy.
“Young men of 21 are not worldly and very experienced. Plenty of them make mistakes. Unfortunately for him, his became public.
“Therefore, it was great to see him score a couple of tries at Murrayfield after there had been so much doubt about him. He has worked his way through his problems and you’ve got to give him credit for that.”
McKenzie urges that the young Frenchman be judged now on what he does on the field, not off it. There is no doubt in anyone’s mind that Bastareaud can play, least of all Ewen McKenzie’s. “He is a real handful, a very promising player and extremely powerful. He gives the opposition something to think about.”
And the clash with Brian |O’Driscoll this weekend in Paris?
“Those contests are the ones you look for as an international player.
“It’s the wily old campaigner who knows every trick in the book and has seen off all the great players against the up-and-coming, physically strong young kid coming through. It’s going to be a great contest.”
For sure, Bastareaud’s old Stade Francais coach will be watching the France-Ireland clash on television. McKenzie knows it could be a classic.