ROUND THREE of the Guinness Six Nations 2020 – a blue-clad youngster with a burgeoning talent and a famous rugby lineage runs in from long range for his team’s third try to seal a valuable away victory.
However, the blue he is wearing is not the navy of Scotland. This is not Adam Hastings in Rome. Instead, it’s the young man who will go head to head with the Scotland stand off at Murrayfield this weekend. It’s Romain Ntamack, the progeny of Emile, scoring against Wales.
Unlike his Scottish counterpart who played age-group football for Spartans before opting to make his career with the oval ball, Ntamack dabbled in a couple of other sports but has never really been serious about anything other than rugby. He has been involved at Toulouse since the age of five and was marked out as a star of the future as he progressed through the youth levels.
He played at centre in the team that lifted the World Under-20 title in 2018, which also included Demba Bamba, Arthur Vincent and Cameron Woki, who have followed Ntamack in graduating to the senior squad.
His career has continued on an upward trajectory, making his full international debut against Wales with number 12 on his back in last year’s Six Nations and ending the tournament as first choice stand-off. Ntamack earned the accolade of World Rugby breakthrough player for 2019 and has gone on to play a pivotal role in the three wins so far that will see Les Bleus come to Edinburgh with the prospect of a first grand slam in a decade looming ever larger.
Ntamack senior earned 46 international caps, scoring 26 tries in the process, won six French titles and featured in three European Cup winning sides. He was also a member of the coaching team which engineered the Six Nations clean sweep in 2010. He knows what the current crop are going through, recalling how the pressure mounted on the players as the weeks went by.
“People were talking about the grand slam from the moment that we had three wins. You had it at the back of your mind. Today, it’s fair to talk about it. But they haven’t done anything yet,” he told French rugby paper Midi Olympique.
Ntamack senior believes that Scotland have the potential to be more dangerous than the teams France have beaten so far. And he is also conscious of the delight Ireland would take in being cast as party-poopers on the final weekend of the competition.
However, as a warning to Scotland, and indeed to the rugby world, he suggests that the current squad is still operating at only 40% of its potential, adding: “Once it gets to 90%, it’s going to be something else.”
Asked whether the weight of expectation could get to the team, he replied: “To be honest, knowing them a bit, I think this team doesn’t feel pressure. That’s where they are different from the others. They have been under pressure since they were in the age group teams. They don’t wonder about what they can do.
“Today they have created this capacity to make their luck and they are using that. And even if they muck it up, I don’t think it will affect them too much.”
He is impressed by the speed with which the new coaching group under Fabien Galthié have imposed their style on the squad and a little surprised that small changes have made such a big difference. Where the current players differ from those of the past is that many have grown up together and seem well equipped to handle the attention they are receiving from a French public starved of success.
Ntamack junior has stamped his personality and calm demeanour on the three matches Les Bleus have won so far, and is among a clutch of French youngsters who will continue to mature over the next three years – France won a second successive World Under 20 title last year and players from that group will also come into the reckoning for selection in the near future.
As the proud father of a tyro with the rugby world at his feet, Ntamack watches with a combination of pride and wonder at the 20-year-old’s progress.
“He continues to surprise me and I’m happy about that. Every time I see him play, I ask myself ‘how is he going to surprise me?’ I’m amazed. But that’s been going on for years. You can never get bored with it. You can’t say ‘it’s normal’. When you play in a tournament that’s one of the toughest in the world, with the best players and you manage to do extraordinary things, it’s impossible to just dismiss it as normal.”
However, like any parent, he sees areas still requiring improvement. So what are they?
“None and all at the same time. But it’s the same for all young players. One thing you can’t control is time. These are lads that have 15 caps and have been in the French team for a year. They are still discovering what it’s like at a high level. You only get experience by making mistakes, being involved, having doubts and bouncing back. But what they are doing is exceptional.”
The next test comes on Sunday when he will face a counterpart for whom many of these observations are equally pertinent. If Hastings gets it right, he may expose some of those perceived weaknesses and, at the same time, pop the French Grand Chelem bubble