Mention Mathieu Bastareaud to anyone and one of the first comments you would get would relate to his size. He gets so much stick for his appearance that it’s pretty easy to glaze over how good he can be. Friday night in Marseille was a clear case in point.
He has just come back from a ban for comments made during a recent Champions Cup game and there is no doubt he was a man on a mission to make up for lost time. France were in need of someone to be the focal point of the team in both attack and defence and the centre certainly did that.
He made the Italian players look like little school kids at times, dragging, knocking and manipulating them all over the field. He’s so much more than a battering ram and isn’t given enough credit for playing the way he does. More often than not it would again be comments made about his stomach that make headlines than his ability and contributions.
The first impact he made on the game last week was a brilliant turnover at the breakdown. He has the low centre of gravity that makes him brilliant at ruck time. He gets low over the ball and with his weight and strength, he is almost impossible to move. Toulon were a nightmare when they had both Steffon Armitage and Bastareaud – both caused damage in this area and it’s only because the Englishman is so good in this area that the Frenchman didn’t get the plaudits he deserved. It’s a key area of the game now and in targeting the wider rucks, Bastareaud can have maximum impact when back rowers from the attacking side are finding it hard to stay up with play.
When carrying the ball into the defence there is no doubt what he can do for your side. Several times through the game on Friday he was seen pumping his legs through contact and adding yards to a French attack through the middle which, in turn, creates much more space for the runners in the side and France have plenty of them. Last week Fall and Grosso, the previous game, Thomas and Vakatawa, they all benefit from Bastareaud and his bludgeoning runs. That’s what many see him as but he has more to his game than simply being a trucker, its unfair to him and what he understands about the game.
He has the capability to pull off ‘Sonny-Bill esque’ offloads which shift the point of attack and allow his side to continue building pressure through attack or make line busts when quite frankly they shouldn’t be possible. Sometimes they don’t go to hand but that comes hand in hand with some players who can free their hands the way Bastareaud can. It’s an art and certainly one he has mastered. Over the top one-handed basketball passes, balls disappearing around the back of defenders and coming back into view on the money are all built in perfectly to his game. He can spark moments of brilliance and did so on Friday against Italy – that was after not having played for a number of weeks.
People sometimes ask why he bothers to try and make outside breaks during games. He doesn’t have the out and out speed to get around top-class international players but he has enough to threaten the outside shoulder and that’s all that is required. If he can create some concern in the defender’s mind then his physical stature comes into play too. When being pressurised by pace and strength in a defensive situation, defenders make poor decisions. Many step in on Bastareaud when they don’t need to which creates a hole behind their back, the space they have turned in from. Supporting players have the chance to beat the next defender out into the space to take the offload. It’s a skill which players use in close quarters and when they have similar numbers to the defence and with the French centre, the majority of the time it works.
He clearly has moments of madness but he’s matured since his days at Stade Francais but when on form Mathieu Bastareaud is up there with the best. Potentially exposed from time to time, he brings a fair amount to the party too which warrants his inclusion in the Test game.
His problem is that the French need to evolve and with that get fitter to cope with how teams are trying to develop their games. He can still be a physical threat but he needs to be able to keep that threat going for the full 80minutes. Next up for England is France in Paris and they better be ready for Bastareaud as he can do just as much damage as Scotland’s centre Huw Jones, if not more.