Six Nations 2014: France eagerly await another burst of speed from zero-to-hero Gaël Fickou
Faced with the joy of a rugby nation prepared to lay everything at his feet from saving their failing team to the resurrection of "French flair", what could Gaël Fickou possibly say? "I only played five minutes," said the scorer of the length-of-the-field try that beat England last weekend. "It wasn't me who should have been on the front of the newspapers."
Nice try — in every sense. When Fickou insisted the try was a team effort – he was one of 13 players to touch the ball in the build-up before the move was completed with a delightful dummy to outwit England's Alex Goode – his modesty was moulded by adversity.
Today, if Fickou comes on from the bench again, it will be his fourth Test appearance at the Stade de France. In the first – his debut – he was brought on for six minutes against Scotland last March. Pushing up in defence, Fickou was illegally bumped off his feet by Sean Lamont, the referee Nigel Owens missed it, and Tim Visser scored a long-range try.
Afterwards Fickou hid in embarrassment from France's backs coach, Patrice Lagisquet, even though everyone understood what had happened. France won, but it was one of only two victories in 2013.
One of the losses was to New Zealand in Paris in November. Given 15 minutes off the bench, Fickou knifed off his left foot to fix two All Black defenders, Ma'a Nonu and Ben Smith, before giving Brice Dulin a pass for France's only try. A week later he had his only start to date, against Tonga. "At 19 he understands everything about professional rugby," said Maxime Médard, Fickou's team-mate for Toulouse and France. "He is one of the 10 best centres in the world and soon he will be number one. He reminds me of Sonny Bill Williams: tall, athletic, technical, with a good hand-off and a feel for the game. He has everything."
In the dressing room last weekend the French celebrated with the actress Audrey Tautou and the Olympic judo champion Teddy Riner. It might be head-turning for a lad who will not be 20 until next month but Fickou has been through a lot. A try for Toulouse against Leicester in the Heineken Cup early last season ("He looks fantastic," said Toby Flood, "he's big [at 6ft 2in], he's rangy and he's got good acceleration") followed on from two for France's Under-20s in the 2012 world junior championship.
Most remarkable perhaps is that Fickou is a Toulouse player at all. He was born to a Senegalese father and French mother a short distance round the coast from Toulon. He played football to the age of 13; there were trials for Sochaux and Monaco. Then young Gaël went to a Toulon summer rugby camp and ran them off their feet. He went on to Toulon's books, and had two years under Philippe Saint-André, now France's head coach. Fickou's 24-year-old brother Jeremie is a prop with Hyères-Carqueiranne and for Senegal; their younger sister Julia, plays for La Valette. These are amateur satellite clubs of Toulon. But with Matt Giteau among five centres ahead of him, Fickou left for Toulouse, last season playing 26 matches including 20 starts.
"It is difficult to be on the bench, because I am competitive," Fickou mused last week. "That said, just to be on the team sheet is so beautiful. Against England I thought I could make a difference using my speed, my freshness. I will try to improve slowly, gradually."
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