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Rugby Union

Thierry Dusautoir: The gatecrasher

Thierry Dusautoir was born in Africa, did not pick up a rugby ball until he was 16 and was not in France's original World Cup squad. Yet he has been the find of the tournament. He talked Paul Newman through his remarkable transformation

Having gatecrashed the World Cup party, Thierry Dusautoir is doing his best to ensure he will be one of the last to leave. The 25-year-old Frenchman, who did not pick up a rugby ball until he was 16, had played only three internationals before this summer and has never appeared in the Six Nations Championship, was not even in Bernard Laporte's original 30-man squad. If the hosts go on to lift the William Webb Ellis Trophy next weekend, however, the debt the France coach will owe Dusautoir will be immense.

The softly spoken engineering graduate has been the find of the tournament. While it was a supreme team effort that earned France a place in tonight's semi-final here against England, Dusautoir was the man who showed the way in last Saturday's 20-18 victory over New Zealand in Cardiff.

A 54th-minute try by the Toulouse flanker instilled belief that Laporte's men could overhaul a 10-point half-time deficit, while his fearsome tackling and boundless energy helped to break All Black minds as well as bodies. The post-match statistics showed that he made 38 of his team's 299 tackles – a French record – in their quarter-final victory.

No wonder it has taken time to recuperate. "We've been recovering little by little," Dusautoir said during a break from preparations for tonight's visit to the Stade de France. "The day after we'd beaten the All Blacks was very hard. It was a match of very high intensity, certainly the hardest match of my career physically. There was also a lot of tension around the whole occasion. We gave a lot."

Dusautoir was called into the France squad only after Clermont's Elvis Vermeulen suffered a slipped disc in the final match of last season. Having scored a try on his debut against Romania last summer, Dusautoir played in a crushing 47-3 defeat by the All Blacks in Lyon in November and then failed to make it on to the pitch in the Six Nations tournament, despite consistent performances for Toulouse.

"Given the way I'd played at the end of last season I was very disappointed not to be in the original World Cup squad," Dusautoir said. "There were team-mates at Toulouse who were named and it hurt not to be alongside them, although I was happy for them.

"I went on holiday to Corsica with my family, wishing my colleagues good luck. There was no way that I expected to be called up, but then I saw on television that there was a possibility I'd get my chance. The following week Bernard Laporte phoned to tell me I was in.

"After that I decided to lock all my doubts and complexes in a closet and do everything to win a berth in the team. When I arrived at Marcoussis [the French national rugby centre] I decided to enjoy myself and work hard. It suddenly clicked. The coach said everybody would have an opportunity to show his worth. I believed him, worked hard and it paid off."

Dusautoir made an immediate impression in the warm-up victory over England in Marseilles. "I think other people started to see me as an international player from that match onwards," he said. "I knew I was capable of playing at this level, but I had to prove that I could do it."

The defeat against Argentina in the opening contest proved a good match to miss, but Dusautoir was called up for the next two group matches, against Namibia and Ireland, and cemented his place with his display against the All Blacks.

He is one of three players in the French squad – all of them flankers – who hail from West Africa. Serge Betsen was born in Kumba (Cameroon), Yannick Nyanga in Kinshasa (Congo) and Dusautoir in Abidjan, the capital of the Ivory Coast. Dusautoir's French father, a soldier, and Ivorian mother brought their family to France when he was 10, settling in the south-western town of Périgueux.

His first sporting love was judo. "One day, I failed a test for the black belt," he said. "It was a real disappointment. I was also tired of training alone while all my friends were enjoying themselves as a group, playing rugby, so I joined them."

Dusautoir played for Bègles-Bordeaux and Colomiers while studying for a degree in chemical engineering at the École Nationale Supérieure in Bordeaux. In 2004 he decided to turn professional and joined Biarritz, winning the French title before signing for Toulouse last year.

Dave Ellis, the Englishman who works as France's defence coach, has known Dusautoir for several years. "I worked with him in my second coaching job in rugby union in France, at Bordeaux," he said. "He was in the juniors then and we invited him to the squad on several occasions. He could hit hard back then and I knew he would cause a few problems in the future.

"There's no emotion on his face. It's difficult to get two words out of him. He's the 'Dark Destroyer'. He sits there calmly, takes it all in and when he goes on to the field he just changes into a monster.

"When you look at the videos in detail, you see that he is really well placed in the defensive organisation. His really strong point is when he hits in the tackle. You saw the tackles he made on Richie McCaw and Jerry Collins. He has no respect for reputations. He's too busy building one for himself."

Dusautoir believes England will provide a stiffer test than the All Blacks. "Last week people would have forgiven us a lot of things," he said. "I don't think anyone would forgive a defeat against the English. They're like us in that they're survivors in this competition. After our defeat against Argentina, and when we knew we'd be playing the All Blacks in the quarter-finals, not many people would have backed us. It was the same for England."

Dusautoir says he has learned through club matches in Europe, against the likes of Leicester, Bath and Saracens, how tough English opposition can be. "They're hard and very focused. You always need to be ready against them because they never let an opportunity slip. They'll take all the points they can get. We'll need to limit our mistakes and be as disciplined as we were against the All Blacks.

"England have a great defence and rely a lot on Jonny Wilkinson's boot to push the opposition back. We've seen how good they are defensively.

"Matches against England are always big challenges. In the warm-up matches against them you could feel the tension. Now we're going up a rung. We're in the semi-finals of the World Cup. Everything is heightened.

"What happened in the warm-up matches doesn't count now. They mattered at the start of the tournament because they gave us a bit more confidence, more certainty about the way we were going to play, but we know the England team is very different to the one we met in the summer. Their team has evolved during this World Cup. They've grown in confidence. It needed a lot of courage and self-sacrifice to beat Australia."

Does Dusautoir ever think about what it would be like to be a world champion? "From time to time, but when I do think about the possibility of winning the title I look back on the match we had to play against the All Blacks and how hard it was. And even if we win this weekend there would still be another match to win. There's a long way to go."