Mathieu Bastareaud vs Manu Tuilagi: The Six Nations' battle of the beasts

When Mathieu Bastareaud faces up to Manu Tuilagi at Twickenham, more than 35 stone will collide in international rugby's heftiest showdown

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The Independent Online

"We need," suggested Philippe Saint-André, France's coach, on naming his side to face England, "to play with the handbrake off." When it comes to Mathieu Bastareaud that is an alarming prospect for England's midfield to contemplate.

Take the handbrake off France's No 13 and the Toulon juggernaut might not be stopped until he reaches the Channel because this is one big Bastareaud. There has never been a bigger centre in international rugby, all 18st 2lbs squeezed into a 6ft 1in frame. "You know when he is coming," says Jamie Roberts, the Wales centre who faced Bastareaud in Paris last weekend, "and it is another thing trying to stop him."

All the signs ahead of Saturday's Twickenham engagement are of a shuddering collision and, with the dark arts of the front row largely hidden from sight, the confrontation in the centres may prove the most blatantly brutal of the lot; in the blue corner Bastareaud and Wesley Fofana, belatedly restored to 12 after two wasted matches on the wing, in the white Brad Barritt and Manu Tuilagi, also back in situ.

In total there will be some 64 stone's worth of weight in midfield alone, 35 of them shared by Bastareaud and Tuilagi. Bastareaud is the heaviest man in the French XV, heavier even than Joe Marler who will prop England's pack. Only Marler's 19st front-row companion Dan Cole will bring more bulk on to the Twickenham pitch.

Twickenham has already witnessed what Bastareaud can do. Three years ago, appropriately enough in the colours of the Barbarians, he flattened Jordan Turner-Hall, the young England centre. "The next thing I knew I was on a bed in the medical room," recalled Turner-Hall.

It was in 2010 that the young man from eastern suburbs of Paris, a cousin of footballer William Gallas, rumbled through the Six Nations, part of a French side that claimed the Grand Slam via a last-day victory over England. Bastareaud celebrated with his team-mates, seemingly at last set for a long and fruitful international career, but he was not to be seen again in French colours until this season.

This is his third coming. He is only 24 but this has already been a rugby life well out of the ordinary. "Let's be French," exhorted Saint-André of his under-pressure side, "courageous, audacious, unpredictable." Bastareaud is capable of all three.

It was four years ago that he earned national notoriety. He returned early from a tour to New Zealand, face battered and bruised and with a suspected fractured eye socket. Bastareaud claimed he had been assaulted by "four or five men".

It turned out to be a fabrication. He changed his story and said he had fallen over drunk in his bedroom. But his withdrawal of the assault claim came after New Zealand's prime minister publicly apologised. It was not long before his French counterpart was apologising for the apology. The New Zealand media christened him the "Wally of Wellington", the French federation suspended him for three months.

Bastareaud struggled in the aftermath of the affair, at one point being admitted to psychiatric care after reports he had thrown himself into the Seine. He points to the community service he did during his ban as occupying a key part in his recovery. "It allowed me to share, to open up at a difficult time," he said of his experiences coaching children in Paris. "What struck me was the youngsters weren't there to judge me."

He began weekly sessions with a psychiatrist. "The word psychiatrist can scare people, but there's no shame in going," said Bastareaud. He revealed a troubled individual, often struggling to sleep and sometimes to communicate, saying that from his schooldays he has been reluctant to speak out in case he made a mistake. "I feel better after every discussion with her," he said.

Bastareaud returned with a bang in 2010, but injury kept him out of the summer tour and then he lost himself again, gaining weight, unhappy at Stade Français, short of form and fitness. He was ignored for the 2011 World Cup. "We have better centres," said Marc Lièvremont, the French coach, dismissively.

His road to rugby rehabilitation began in earnest that year and it began with a route out of Paris. He joined Toulon, accompanied by a stark warning from Saint-André, Lièvremont's successor, to sort himself out if he ever wanted to get le maillot blue back.

At Toulon, surrounded by the likes of Jonny Wilkinson, Matt Giteau and Frédéric Michalak, Bastareaud found himself and showed renewed dedication for his sport. He shredded his distinctive dreadlocks; a reverse Samson. This season he has produced the best rugby of his career, helping Toulon lead the Top 14 and progress in the Heineken Cup. He was recalled for the Six Nations, came off the bench against Italy and started against France. Tomorrow he will win only his 12th cap.

"He is very direct," says Roberts, himself no shrinking violet at 6ft 4in and nearly 17st. "He carries hard and he is often able to get over the gainline."

In his 98 minutes on the pitch in the Six Nations this season, Bastareaud has beaten nine defenders, more than any other player. With tacklers primed to prevent their opponent off-loading, rather than simply aiming at the ankles, it makes stopping a runner of the shape and bowling-ball build of a Tuilagi or a Bastareaud an extreme challenge. "He has a low centre of gravity," says Roberts.

Tuilagi joked he would not have a problem as his tackling technique is aimed "just below the forehead". "Bastareaud is a quality player," added Tuilagi. "I see this as another opportunity to test myself against the best."

In defence, France like to use Bastareaud to knock down runners but Roberts believes he can be got at. "I think England will try and attack around him, try to draw him out of the line defensively and make space either side of him to attack into."

Bastareaud and Fofana will form France's third different centre pairing in three games in a radically re-worked backline. From being part of a Toulon 10-12-13 axis against Wales, Bastareaud is now on his own, but a partnership of contrasts with the prodigious Fofana has the potential to pose a real threat to what has been an area of strength for England.

"It's an interesting combination," suggests Roberts. "As a fellow 12 I think Fofana is the best 12 in the French League. He will add a lot to that team."

It is not simply though the classic (relatively) little and (very) large partnership. Bastareaud has good hands and is quick off the mark too. "There will be some serious collisions," suggests Tuilagi. Especially if that handbrake really does come off.

Michalak dropped as French freshen up

Philippe Saint-André has dropped both his half-backs among seven changes to the French side to face England at Twickenham.

Frédéric Michalak paid the price for indecisive performances in both France's defeats by Italy and Wales – their worst start to a campaign in 31 years – and is replaced at fly-half by the more reliable François Trinh-Duc, who has at least spent his domestic season with Montpellier in the No 10 shirt. Michalak, woefully out of touch in Rome and Paris, has been playing at scrum-half for Toulon with Jonny Wilkinson outside him.

"Frédéric has played a lot," said Saint-André. "He played the last six matches. It is normal that he lacks freshness. But the week of rest served him well and we will need everyone."

Michalak's partner in the first two games, Maxime Machenaud, is replaced by Morgan Parra. The other key change sees Wesley Fofana moved from the wing to his more usual place at inside centre – Vincent Clerc comes back in to replace Fofana on the wing. In the pack, the 6ft 6in Christophe Samson will win his second cap as Saint-André seeks to offer a greater challenge to England in the lineout.