It was a split-second moment that might wreck the Rugby World Cup dream for highly expectant host nation France, a dream denied so many times before.
France is in dismay and holding its breath over the fate of captain Antoine Dupont, its star man and widely regarded as the world’s best rugby player, after he slumped to his knees, head on the turf, with a serious-looking facial injury in a 96-0 blowout victory over Namibia on Thursday night.
The first dose of bad news was confirmed early Friday by the French Rugby Federation. Dupont had indeed suffered a facial fracture in a tackle by Namibia captain Jean Deysel, just as France coach Fabien Galthie and every rugby fanatic across the republic feared.
Not known yet was how long the supremely gifted 26-year-old scrumhalf might be out for and if he will again grace this World Cup as France chases a first, elusive title and is three games and three victories into what it hopes will be a glorious seven-game journey.
The federation was seeking a specialist surgical opinion on that.
“We’re like everyone else. We’re worried,” France assistant coach Laurent Labit said. “We were happy with the match but it was a difficult evening for us. We’re not making any plans too soon. A surgeon will tell us more about Antoine’s availability. We’ll wait another 48 or 72 hours and then we’ll know more.”
Labit said Dupont himself “imagined the worst” before he left immediately for a hospital.
The exact injury is a zygomaticomaxillary fracture, according to the federation, no doubt leading to a frenzy of googling from fans and analysts alike. The recovery time would appear to be weeks, not days. The quarterfinals are in three weeks, the semifinals in a month. The final is on Oct. 28.
The news of Dupont’s injury seized the spotlight in the French media, with some outlets running live updates on the situation. Le Monde newspaper put the news on its front page. Speculation over Dupont’s recovery time went into overdrive.
Dupont looks to be out until the semis, some said. Even worse, he could miss the rest of the Rugby World Cup, a devastating blow to France, but also a major disappointment for the entire tournament, where the brilliant No. 9 from the southern village of Castelnau-Magnoac had been expected to light up the show, possibly all the way to the final in Paris.
“At the World Cup you want to see the best players, and he’s obviously the best player in the world,” England scrumhalf Danny Care said. “We want to see him back there in a French shirt.”
Care summed up the sentiment of most of the rugby world, no matter their own allegiance. Everyone was excited by the chance to watch a special player in a once-in-a-career chance at a home World Cup.
As one Welsh journalist posted on social media: “You know you’re a true great in rugby … When the entire world is gutted that you’re injured.”
Dupont, the world player of the year in 2021, will likely not be so badly missed for France’s last Pool A game against Italy in two weeks. But his absence for the quarterfinals might be critical, with France on course for a meeting with top-ranked Ireland or defending champion and No. 2 South Africa.
France has never won the Rugby World Cup and has lost three finals, making previous tournaments more a curse than a joy. But hopes were high coming into its hosting this year, and went sky-high after Dupont and Co. beat three-time champion New Zealand in the opening game, an indication if ever there was one that this French team was ready.
France had already lost flyhalf Romain Ntamack, Dupont’s backline partner, to injury. Dupont out would be a second, even bigger, blow.
“Yes, it’s a very important competition, almost the sporting event of a lifetime for some,” Labit said of the chances of Dupont maybe even playing on with the injury. “It’s a World Cup on home soil with a team that can claim overall victory. This is obviously a factor that should weigh heavily when the decision is made.
“But the final choice will depend on the surgeon and Antoine. The specialist knows who Antoine Dupont is and he’s aware of what he’s playing in.”
Much to France’s chagrin, Dupont’s injury came in an illegal high tackle by Deysel, who was red-carded for the hit early in the second half, when his head smashed into the right side of Dupont’s face. The jarring impact at Stade Velodrome in Marseille also came when France was 54-0 ahead and there was no real need for the host nation’s prize asset to even be on the field.
That prompted coach Galthie to be questioned over why Dupont was still out there after halftime. Rugby’s nature means injuries are always a real possibility.
“What do you want me to say? You can’t take 14 players off at halftime,” Galthie said, exasperated.
As for Deysel, possibly the most unpopular man in France right now, he apologized for threatening the hopes of a nation.
“I meant no harm,” Deysel said. “Everything happened very quickly and I couldn’t get my head out of the way quick enough, resulting in a head clash. I know the rules and immediately knew that I was at fault.
“He is a great player and person and I wish him a speedy recovery.”
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