France have a very special relationship with their scrum-halves. The only nation that have come close to having such a relationship was Australia in the George Gregan years; and that was mainly because Gregan was the most French of non-French nines, that is outstanding and also a bit of a cock. Baptiste Serin showed in the defeat to England that the future is bright for those of us who like their rugby just a little bit on the insouciant brilliance side.
What is it about those Gallic scrum-halves? Unlike every other rugby nation who let the outside half run the show, this is traditionally far too dull for France who base their game around their scrum half. The successful periods of their rugby history are littered with these petit generals, those mercurial or forceful talents who run the show from the base of the scrum, with incumbents like Philippe Carbonneau, Fabien Galthie, Jean-Baptiste Elissalde, Freddie Michalak and Morgan Parra. At the same time the men in the ten shirt were utterly forgettable pivots and functional goalkickers, the likes of Thierry Lacroix, Christophe Lamaison and Lionel Beauxis. Sure, it didn’t always work but coaches should be very careful about messing with it. Phillipe Saint Andre moved Freddie Michalak to 10 with comically disastrous consequences and proved without doubt that moving the erratic genius one channel outwards is folly.
Baptiste Serin, the latest man to inhabit the nine shirt, is 22 years old and plays his rugby for Bordeaux-Begles, the generally characterless team that are seemingly anchored to the middle section of the Top 14 forever. The man himself could not be more unlike his club: he is arrogant, languid, forceful, stroppy, charming and perhaps most importantly, a spectacularly talented rugby player.
After captaining France U20s, he stepped up to the seniors and showed flashes of this talent in France’s tour of Argentina last summer and cemented this brilliance with his cameo appearance vs New Zealand in November with his outrageous out of the back pass to Louis Picamoles for his side’s only try.
At Twickenham on Saturday he trotted onto the field all youthful confidence, willowy frame and quirky haircut – like a Facebook D’Artagnan or Depardieu in those days before he pissed on cabin crew – and set about calling the tune for the whole time he was on the field. His service is quick and crisp, even when he has to get it away ugly, including using the dive pass (remember them?) Too many nines are obsessed with form rather than their real job which is to get the ball away sharpish and Serin doesn’t concern himself with the former and as a result the latter was outstanding, particularly in the first half. But, he is more than simply getting the ball away, Serin has a wonderful awareness of space that is increasingly rare in modern scrum halves; he worked his team around the ruck and park magnificently with a maturity beyond his six caps.
Never once looking intimidated by the Twickenham atmosphere he reinforced this general lack of fear and giving a shit by starting not one but two fights. Two. Both with forwards. First he took on back row Tom Wood, a large but overly coiffured back-row: then he squared up to Dan Cole, a prop with a face so terrifying he looks like he had a paper round in Chernobyl. At the point of this second bit 0f Serin- prompted pasty this writer lost all logical reason in my love for him.
There is much talk this year of the French getting some more France into their game. This was evident in a losing effort vs England and Serin was at the heart of it for the fifty-odd minutes he was amongst it.
The future of rugby the French way appears safe is his young, crafty, punch-happy hands.
I can’t bloody wait.