There are a few things unusual about Louis Picamoles. For a start the France No 8 doesn’t do Twitter, one of the few professional players to shun the social network site. Nor does he hail from the south of France like so many of his team-mates.
Picamoles is a Parisian, who learned his rugby in Yvelines, just south of the capital, before moving to Montpellier in his teens and then on to Toulouse.
Then there’s his running style, what Toulouse team-mate Census Johnston describes affectionately as ‘weird’. It’s Picamoles’ gait, a giant loping stride, allied to his great strength, that makes him such a devastating ball-carrier. And if Ireland don’t stop Picamoles at source on Sunday then they could be in for a painfully long afternoon.
“He doesn’t lift heavy [in the gym]” explains Johnston, the Samoan prop who has been a teammate of Picamoles at Toulouse since 2009, “but he has great natural strength with those legs like tree trunks. He’s a really good man. If I could describe him in a few words, then they would be sociable, humble and determined.”
Ireland might not be familiar with Picamoles’ sociability but they know all about his determination. When the two sides met at the Aviva Stadium in the 2013 Six Nations, he was voted France’s man of the match for the manner in which he eclipsed Jamie Heaslip. The Leinster No 8 carried for 10 metres all match, while the Frenchman racked up 68 metres with ball in hand.
By modern standards Picamoles isn’t a behemoth; in fact for a No 8 he’s comparatively small, standing 6ft 2in (Heaslip is 6ft 4in) but he does tip the scales at 18 stones. “His centre of gravity is very low,” explains France prop Eddy Ben Arous. “And his enormous legs also make it difficult so you have to go for his ankles. But even if you do that he can then jump over you to avoid the tackle.”
For players brave enough (or stupid enough) to try and go high on Picamoles the results can be spectacularly humiliating. Ask Martin Castrogiovanni. The Italian barred Picamoles’ path during their World Cup encounter last month at Twickenham, but not for long. The 19-stone Racing 92 prop was tossed aside as nonchalantly as a Parisian flicking a Gitanes butt onto the Champs-Élysées. “Picamoles won,” admitted a rueful Castro afterwards. “I yield to him. But our paths will cross again in the Top 14 and I hope to take my revenge.”
But Picamoles is far more than just brawn. He reads the game as well as any international forward, and is able to anticipate the next play a second or two before others. That’s why he’s rarely caught out of position and is liable to crop up in the most unlikely of places. Then there are his hands, so soft it’s as if he’s handling a precious vase, not a rugby ball. If there’s one weakness of Picamoles, it’s that he sometimes doesn’t release the overlap because he’s too intent on making the hard yards himself.
Why then will Picamoles be winning only cap No 50 against Ireland, seven years after making his debut as a replacement (also against Ireland) in the 2008 Six Nations? He’s had his fair share of injury and illness but there are other reasons as well.
The 29-year-old — who incidentally was the 1,000th player to be capped by France — was dropped by Philippe Saint-Andre during the 2014 Six Nations after being sent to the sin bin by Alain Rolland against Wales for failing to roll away from the tackle.
It wasn’t the yellow card in itself that irked PSA, rather Picamoles sarcastically applauding Rolland as he walked to the touchline. “Certain attitudes on the ground vis-a-vis the match officials... have no place in our sport,” explained the French coach. “Respect is the foundation of our values. It is vital to send a signal to all players and remind them having the privilege of wearing the jersey imposes duties and obligations.”
Though Picamoles was brought back for France’s final game of the 2014 Six Nations, against Ireland, he was deployed on the flank, a criminal waste of his talent and one which the Irish exploited. Aware that Picamoles was not the quickest flanker in the world, Ireland called an intricate play that resulted in Andrew Trimble going over for a try after the pack had first wheeled the scrum.
Saint-Andre persisted in playing him out of position during France’s summer tour to Australia in 2014, which ended in a 3-0 series whitewash for Les Bleus.
Picamoles returned from Down Under not feeling himself but put it down to the end of an arduous season.
A bit of rest and recuperation and he imagined he would soon be refreshed. But he wasn’t. By late summer it was clear something was the matter. “Each day my general health declined,” he said in an interview with Midi Olympique. “I lost nearly 10 kg. When I climbed the stairs I had the impression I was in the middle of a really hard workout. Even playing with my children left me exhausted.”
When even holding a conversation became an effort, Picamoles was sent to a specialist and the diagnosis was acute respiratory distress syndrome (ARDS), a condition in which the lungs became severely inflamed because of an infection or injury, in Picamoles’ case a previous bout of glandular fever. ARDS can be life-threatening and while Picamoles was never in critical danger, he said he “lived long moments of anxiety” as he wondered whether he would ever again play rugby.
Picamoles missed the first two months of the 2014-15 season, returning for Toulouse in time for the start of their Champions Cup campaign, but it was clear from his performances that he remained some way short of his rampaging best.
Overlooked by Saint-Andre for France’s November internationals and the 2015 Six Nations, Picamoles finished the season strongly for Toulouse and was included in the World Cup squad.
On reflection, he said his illness had helped him “grow up” and realise that it’s best to listen to one’s head and not one’s body. That was one of the few pronouncements by Picamoles on a difficult stage of his life.
Unlike many sports stars these days, he doesn’t feel the need to air all his thoughts — however banal — on social media. Nor is he one for interviews or self-promotion in general.
“Within the squad he’s good fun,” explains wing Vincent Clerc, a long-time teammate of Picamoles for both France and Toulouse. “He enjoys life and is good to have around. ”
Clerc says that Picamoles is in the form of his life, and he’s clearly benefited from the hothouse environment of a two-month summer training camp.
“He’s looking really fit and at ease on the pitch,” explains Clerc. “And of course he’s benefiting from playing in a strong French pack that gives him the solid platform from which to attack.”
Picamoles is going to attack on Sunday and the challenge Ireland face is to defend against the inevitable onslaught. It promises to be one of the key battles in Cardiff.
‘He tossed me aside as nonchalantly as a Parisian flicking a Gitanes butt onto the Champs-Élysées’
France’s No 8 may be comparatively small, but Louis Picamoles has a habit of humiliating those who underestimate him