Packing down in France’s ProD2 is a rite of passage for forward play. Little wonder it’s delivering readymade talent for the national side, says James Harrington.
France prop Demba Bamba’s player-of-the-match performance against Scotland a fortnight ago silenced many critics. But heading into the game, some commentators were demanding to know why super-rich French rugby needed to dig down to the second-tier ProD2 to find an international tighthead.
Many got stuck on the increasingly inaccurate notion that French rugby is so flooded with overseas players that there’s no room for homegrown talent. Bamba, along with fellow ProD2 alumni Thomas Ramos and Felix Lambey, as well as the likes of Antoine Dupont, Romain Ntamack and host of other players aged 24 and under who were not selected for France this Six Nations quickly prove that theory wrong.
The simple — almost circular — truth is Bamba is exactly why French rugby looked below the top tier. Aged just 20, he is a freakish talent, which is why he has become the first ProD2 player since Auch prop Franck Montanella in 2007 to win a national call-up. Importantly, he also still has much to learn. And that is why he is playing ProD2 rugby. That he is considered good enough to play international rugby while so young and inexperienced is evidence of just how good he has the potential to be.
Bamba came to attention playing for the Under-20s during last year’s Six Nations. Soon after a ridiculously talented French side won World Rugby’s Under 20 Championship in the summer, he signed a five-year deal with Top 14 side Lyon. They immediately loaned him back to his former club Brive for a year so that he would get some much-needed game time. The inconvenient truth for conspiracy theorists is he’s impressing even gnarly pack monsters of the ProD2, a league that really idolises forward power.
“At his age I haven’t seen anyone with this much talent,” said former Lions and Ireland lock Jeremy Davidson, who is now Brive’s head coach. “His rise has been phenomenal.”
Unlike Ireland, there is no competitive schools rugby in France — there isn’t much in the way of competitive school sport at all. The pathway to professional rugby, to all elite-level sport, is via a thriving local club system. Even professional clubs have amateur arms that run the ‘ecoles de rugby’, where children from the age of five or six get their first taste of the game.
Bamba, a former national age-grade judo champion, started playing at 14 to improve his fitness. He first set his sights on a midfield role, but his coach at Saint-Denis US persuaded him the front row was a better fit. The rest, via Brive and the World Under-20 Championship, is history.
When Bamba was first called up to the senior men’s national squad in November 2018, Brive hooker François Da Ros, who has played alongside him all season, told L’Equipe:
Admiration for the young prop extends beyond the Correze club’s dressing room. Experienced Bayonne prop Aretz Iguiniz, 35, said of the youngster: “Physically, he has a strength that allows him to be ahead of his time and already ready for the international level. The fact that the France coach decided to select him does not shock me.”
Former Montpellier prop Oleg Ishchenko, 25, who now plays for Aix-en-Provence, added: “Against him, we have no room for error. He is one of the strongest props I have faced.”
Ishchenko goes further. As far as he is concerned, the ProD2 should be a rite of passage for young forwards with high ambitions. “The ProD2 is a real scrummaging school, I started my career with Montpellier, in the Top 14. But it was only when I arrived in Aix that I really learned about scrummaging.”
Bamba is not the only young ProD2 alumnus in the current France squad. Lock Felix Lambey and fullback Thomas Ramos both learned their trade in the league. For Lambey, a future club team-mate of Bamba, it was ProD2 or bust. Short of game time at Lyon three seasons ago, the 1.95m lock went out on loan to Beziers, not knowing if the club he had been at since he was 18 would want him back.
But, he barnstormed his way through the second division, featuring in 28 games for the outfit on the Mediterranean coast, and winning plaudits aplenty. He was welcomed back to Lyon with open arms for the start of the 2016/17 season. Today, Lyon coach Pierre Mignoni — tipped as a possible replacement for Jacques Brunel at Marcoussis — will tell anyone willing to listen that Lambey, impressive as he already is at age 24, has yet to move out of the foothills of his potential.
Six Nations’ watchers this year, meanwhile, will recall Thomas Ramos as the slight French 15 with the disconcerting turn of pace who tore up Stade de France on his first start a fortnight ago. But, though the 23-year-old is now a regular early name on the Toulouse teamsheet, he too needed to take the ProD2 route to the international set-up.
Having joined the Toulouse school-age set-up at age 15, having moved to the Pink City from Mazamet, near Castres, he took a punt on dropping down a league for a season six years later. At the time he had featured in just six Top 14 games in three seasons after graduating to the academy set up.
He switched to Colomiers for a season in 2016, where he became the ProD2’s top scorer. On his return to Toulouse colours, coach Ugo Mola immediately moved him from the occasionals list to regular senior squad player — and gave him added kicking responsibilities.
Looking back further, Mathieu Bastareaud played his first senior international in 2009, when he was a rising Stade Francais star. But his first selection was two years earlier. Then-coach Bernard Laporte called him up to the senior side’s June tour of New Zealand in 2007 when he turned out for then-third tier side Massy. Injury, however, forced him to withdraw and delayed his international debut for two years.
Yoann Huget, too, owes his international career to a spell in the French second tier. He moved to Agen on a two-year deal in 2008 after playing seven games in his first three-year stint with Toulouse, and scored 14 tries in 28 matches in his first season.
He won the first of his 56 caps to date in November 2010, after helping Agen return to the top flight in June that year.
With no schools system in place, clubs — and the ProD2 — are a well-worn route for many players to the top of the game in France. Bamba, Ramos, Lambey — and more — are living proof it can be worth the trip.