In his darkest days at the 2011 World Cup in New Zealand, France captain Thierry Dusautoir found a ray of hope from an unlikely source - one of the All Blacks greatest players. Karim Ben Ismaïl and Jim Kayes with this exclusive story.
It was a bleak time for France. They had opened the World Cup with wins against Japan and Canada but were well beaten in their pool game against the All Blacks and then the wheels fell off against Tonga.
They lost 14-19 and the finger pointing, accusations, infighting and back stabbing kicked off, leaving skipper Thierry Dusautoir feeling lost and alone, and struggling to sleep.
Then he got a phone call from Sir Michael Jones. The two had caught up a couple times over coffee but Jones wanted Dusautoir to come and speak to a group of disaffected Auckland teenagers who were part of the Village Sports Academy, an education and sports development program he and his wife Maliena had run since 2007.
These were youth who had slipped between the cracks of the education system and, for many, who looked at gangs as a better alternative to the life they were living. Dusautoir knew what that sort of life was like. Born in Abidjan, Côte d’Ivoire to a French father and Ivorian mother, he was raised by his mother.
“When I heard his story, about being raised by a solo Mum as a minority in France and having lived a tough life, I knew he would connect with our youth,” Jones remembers.
“His story is so powerful because through rugby he chased his dreams but education was also important and he’s now a qualified engineer.
“Our kaupapa was about keeping kids out of gangs, of helping them re-engage with education and to start making the right choices and Thierry was the perfect fit.”
He spoke for an hour to the teenagers at the Suburbs Rugby Club in Avondale and though he is softly spoken, his message was loud and clearly heard.
“Thierry has a real mana about him that our rangitahi connected with straight away,” Jones says. “He has such a great presence about him and his story was their story.”
What’s unique here, though, is that while Dusautoir was showing these Auckland teenagers that their futures could be brighter than they imagined, they were calming his inner turmoil.
“Meeting Micheal, and seeing what he did around young men in difficult situations washed my brain from the problems and criticism of the French team,” Dusautoir, 40 in November, recalls.
“The aura of Michael Jones and his kindness healed me and helped me to revitalise. I will never forget the softness of his voice compared to his huge body. This man could knock me out with one slap, but his heart is so full of light. His welcome moved me. He introduced me to his family, showed me his office; he raised hope in my heart and mind.”
Jones is humbled by the comments, suggesting he and Dusautoir bonded through the similarities of their lives. Jones' father died when he was four and he was raised by his mother, both experienced life as a minority, excelled at rugby and used that success to succeed away from the field.
“Talking to Thierry was like chatting with a younger brother and I think he saw me as something of an older brother.”
Jones told Dusautoir that France would get back on track at the World Cup and make it to the final. He even took a large group to France’s quarterfinal match against England at Eden Park with their faces painted in French colours.
But that was as far it went.
“Very early, at our first meeting, Michael told me that we will face the All Blacks in the final,” Dusautoir says. “I smiled. We had just lost 37-17 to them in a pool game, then we lost 14-19 against Tonga in Wellington.
“But Michael was right in his prediction. He had trust in us before we had trust in ourselves. I remember his words - “the French, you throw them out the door, they will come-back by the window”. Michael filled me with hope. So much that I could share it with the team afterwards. He gave me an enormous boost!”
But Jones had also told Dusautoir his support would end at the final! “I did,” Jones chuckles. “He knew I wanted them to make the final but that I also wanted the All Blacks to win it.”
It was, in that respect, a repeat of the 1987 final when Jones scored a try as the All Blacks beat France to win the inaugural tournament.
Dusautoir says the 2011 tournament and the turmoil he had to work through as the French team self-combusted has held him in good stead in his life after rugby.
“Now that I am an entrepreneur (he has shares in several companies in France and USA) I feel I have more knowledge about coping with pressure and empowerment of others.
“It also taught me how much I can be resilient. I did not know how many blows I could take. I remember how lonely I was in my room, some nights during the New Zealand World Cup. Alone in the middle of the storm. But when I empowered people around me and opened the door of positivity things improved.
“The last three weeks after our loss against Tonga we re-found our enthusiasm. We had that pleasure of being together that wasn’t there at first.”
Dusautoir has two strong memories from the 2011 final. The first is running out to sea of black in the stands, the other is the arrow France formed to confront the All Blacks haka.
“In 2007, for the quarter final in Cardiff, we faced the haka with blue, white and red t-shirts. I was rooming with Serge Betsen, I was on the phone with the mother of my girlfriend. She told me “you should not be passive watching the All Blacks, why not surround them during haka?”.
“I hung up the phone laughing, telling Serge “she does not understand rugby”. But Serge didn’t laugh. He said, “this is not a silly idea”. Two days later, Christophe Dominici and Raphael Ibanez presented to the whole team the idea of t-shirts with colours of the French flag.
“In 2011, the situation was different, I was captain of the team. The week leading to the final, some players were hassling me to do something during the haka.”
At first he refused, but he discussed the haka with their New Zealand liaison, a police officer who had also been in the army, and Dusautoir gained a deeper understanding of the Māori challenge. And they decided to form the arrow.
The match is also remembered for the close score, with Dusautoir and Tony Woodcock scoring tries and Stephen Donald adding a penalty to help the All Blacks to the 8-7 win.
And, from a French perspective, there was the officiating of South African referee Craig Joubert.
The All Blacks - and Graham Henry in particular - and New Zealand fans were incensed in 2007 that England referee Wayne Barnes appeared to miss a forward pass in a French try in their quarterfinal win in Cardiff. French fans were just as angry at Jourbert’s perceived failings in 2011.
“If Barnes made a mistake in 2007, Joubert made far more referee mistakes during the 2011 final,” Dusatoir insists. “ But we have to move on. If we had been better than the Kiwis in 2011 we would have won and not need to hide behind refereeing decisions.”
Dusatoir was outstanding in both games. In 2011 he was named World Rugby’s player of the year ahead of Jerome Kaino, the All Blacks flanker who most New Zealanders felt should have won. And in 2007 Dusatoir was, quite simply, a tackling machine as he smashed the All Blacks into a one-dimensional defeat.
“This victory installed me in the French team,” Dusatoir says of his performance in Cardiff. “ After the final whistle I felt a tremendous fatigue. People often tell me about my great performance, 38 tackles, but defence is even more demanding mentaly than physically. You have to be very focused to cover your channel and your teammates, in order to never be the weak link.
“The year before I was dropped after our loss (3-47) to the All Blacks in Lyon. I have been blamed unfairly for this loss, but it gave me a higher motivation to perform. Add to the fact that this generation of All Black players impressed me a lot. The back row with McCaw-So’oialo-Collins was outstanding!”
That admiration is mutual as All Blacks fans know Dusatoir was among the very best loose forwards of his generation.
But time moves on and Dusatoir is encouraged by the young French team that will play the All Blacks in November. Many were part of the France under 20s teams that won the world titles in 2018 and 2019.
“The guys are a real band of brothers willing to play together,” he says. “They have built up trust as many of them were in the team who were U20 world champions so the test versus the All Blacks will be very interesting.”
Dusautoir, who is a commentator for TV station Canal+ in France, is keen to see the contest between Aaron Smith and France’s exciting halfback Antoine Dupont.
“Smith has played 100 tests and is 32, Dupont is just a young lad at 24. Smith, with his tremendous international experience, will be facing a young wolf who is hungry and outstanding. Two different styles.
“I also want to see Brodie Retallick. He is a great player who doesn’t get the accolades he deserves. He is everywhere on the field and has skills. And I want to watch Ardie Savea too, who is a great player and now the captain.
“But we have a very good team too with the U20 world champions blossoming. The health of the French team is very good news for the world of rugby.”
Dusautoir, who played 80 tests for France and 12 of those against the All Blacks (for just two wins), shies away from predicting the result.
“I can’t say because we haven’t played each other for a while and I have too much respect for New Zealand rugby to devalue the All Blacks. There is a trap when you have beaten them once : you can think ‘ok, they are beatable. We will beat them again, it is not that hard’.
“This way of thinking is stupid, because then you lose by 50 points. The All Blacks are relentlessly pushing for excellence. And they are not just the 2021 rugby team, they are a history, a country, a legacy, a culture of rugby. Even though we have a very good French team, we have to stay humble.”
The humility of a man who, in his darkest days, found a way to light thanks to some errant Auckland kids and a champion All Black.