When Jonny Wilkinson narrows his eyes in that singular way of his to stare across the gainline in the Stade de France this evening, his gaze will meet one with a true hint of the oriental. The new France fly-half François Trinh-Duc has been shy to say much about his Vietnamese background since he arrived on the Six Nations scene in this month of Marc Lièvremont's shock selections, yet it is a fascinating tale.
Trinh-Duc's debut for Les Bleus away to Scotland and a second cap off the bench against Ireland passed with only a vague reference to his paternal grandfather coming to France to escape the Vietnam war. It was erroneous. Nhien Trinh-Duc was 17 when he left his village near Hanoi in what was then colonial French Indochina, to fight for the French Army in the Second World War. He arrived in a France already under Nazi occupation and joined the Resistance instead.
"Nhien fought for the resistance around the country then settled in a barracks for indigenous workers in Lot-et-Garonne," recalled Albert Trinh-Duc, François' uncle and one of Nhien's four children. "They were workers' camps which supported the war effort and later the reconstruction. Still very young, Nhien was adopted by a French couple. His adoptive mother was the sister of a seamstress, he learnt to sew and found his way to a Paris fashion school."
François would like to trace his Vietnamese history but he never met Nhien, who died in 1984. Albert has no doubt François' grandfather would have been proud of the 21-year-old who makes up a callow hinge in the France side tonight alongside his Montpellier club-mate Louis Picamoles, 22, at No 8 and Bourgoin's scrum-half, Morgan Parra, 19. "Nhien wanted very much to integrate into France," said Albert.
Nhien worked as a tailor for a ready-to-wear shop in Agen and married a French girl whose Italian parents had fled the Mussolini regime. Now François' elder brother is a fifth-year student doctor taking after their father, Philippe, who is an anaesthetist in Montpellier, and Albert, a doctor in Agen. So a medical career seemed more likely for François than a rugby one. But in 2004-05 he became the first ever Montpellier player to be called to France's national academy in Marcoussis. His year there was "a great leap forward", though he recalled: "It was a passage from childhood innocence to the professional world of adults. Going from two training sessions per week, I went to two training sessions per day and I had trouble keeping up." Trinh-Duc missed out when France's Under-21s won the World Championship in 2006.
The great revelation came on a cold night in January 2007: Montpellier v Bayonne in a relegation battle. The Montpellier chairman ordered his coaches to gamble with a group of players all born in 1985 or '86: Picamoles, Julien Tomas, Fulgence Ouedraogo, Jacques Boussuge and Trinh-Duc. Trinh-Duc had played one league match against Biarritz and another against Connacht in the Challenge Cup the previous month. He finished with a winning full house of a try, three conversions, a penalty and a drop-goal.
Sale shackled Trinh-Duc in the European Challenge Cup in November by man-marking him with the Argentina flanker Juan Martin Fernandez Lobbe. The Lièvremont strategy tonight is for his trio of tiros at eight, nine and 10 to run stuttering England off their feet. For Trinh-Duc the grand plan began in a little village in Vietnam.