Breaking bad

Yoann Huget has made headlines for all the wrong reasons this year, but that could change at the World Cup, writes GAVIN MORTIMER.

It hasn’t been a good 2015 thus far for Yoann Huget. The 28-year-old Toulouse wing first hit the headlines in January during a European Champions Cup match against Bath when he took a dive so blatant it would have shamed Cristiano Ronaldo. His attempt to con a penalty from the ref failed, and social media practically went into meltdown as pundits, ex-players and the public voiced their outrage.

A contrite Huget apologised for a crime that ‘doesn’t reflect my mentality or the values of rugby’. That didn’t stop tournament organisers issuing him with a formal warning for ‘an act contrary to good sportsmanship’.

Four months later Huget was back in the news for all the wrong reasons, this time for an incident that occurred on the last weekend of the regular Top 14 season. Midway through the first half of Toulouse’s clash with Bordeaux, he brought his left boot down into the face of Jandré Marais. The former Sharks lock was left writhing in agony, hands clutched to his face, and yet remarkably the incident went unnoticed by the match officials.

Why Bordeaux failed to cite Huget is a mystery that remains unanswered, but a few days later footage of the stamp went viral and the reaction was one of revulsion and incredulity that no action had been taken. Clermont lock Jamie Cudmore labelled Huget ‘a coward’, while former Biarritz and England fullback Iain Balshaw called the wing ‘a disgrace’. 

But none of the criticism prompted World Rugby to act. Huget had got away with it. He wasn’t so fortunate four years ago on the eve of the 2011 World Cup. At the time he was 24, a member of Bayonne in France’s Basque country, and still finding his feet in Test rugby, having made his debut earlier in the season against Argentina. Perhaps the exhilaration of becoming an international rugby player was responsible for Huget failing to inform France’s Anti-Doping Agency of his whereabouts on three separate occasions.

‘Once I completed the wrong location on my form,’ he subsequently explained. ‘The second time I was with the France team before the game against Wales and the third I had a photo shoot at the last minute.’

His excuses cut no ice with the agency, or the French Rugby Federation, and a month before the start of the World Cup, Huget was removed from the squad and banned for four months.

In an interview in April this year, Huget accused the Anti-Doping Agency of grandstanding, saying he was ‘made an example of’ because it wanted to increase its profile. The tone of the interview was one of self-pity and there was no acknowledgement that to miss one drugs test is unfortunate, but to miss three is inexcusable.

Huget returned from his ban in 2012, quickly becoming a favourite of new coach Philippe Saint-André. At 1.90m and 94kg Huget is a different kind of wing to the one Saint-André was during his illustrious career. There was little elegance to Saint-André but there was intelligence and a try-scorer’s instinct. He scored 32 in 69 Tests, a tally far superior to Huget, who has managed just six in 38 Tests.

But Huget is a player for the modern era, particularly the modern French team. He may have played with panache, but Saint-André as a coach is conservative to the core, and in his four-year tenure ‘defence’ has taken precedence over offence – in his 37 Tests France have scored just 64 tries while England in the same period have scored 92 in 39 Tests.

Huget is Saint-André’s idea of a modern wing. He doesn’t have searing pace, but he’s got a footballing brain, a strong defence and he can break tackles. He’s also French, increasingly rare among Top 14 wings. Seven of the top 15 try-scorers in last season’s championship were Fijian-born wings and then there are the likes of Bryan Habana, Drew Mitchell, Juan Imhoff, Digby Ioane and Gio Aplon.

To be blunt, Saint-André doesn’t have many options out wide, which is why Huget is so important to his plans. So was that why he was never cited for his stamp on Marais? That’s one conspiracy theory doing the rounds, that Bordeaux and Toulouse agreed, for the greater good of the national team, not to make a fuss. Because if Huget had been sent before a disciplinary panel it’s likely he would be sitting out his second World Cup.

– This article first appeared in the September 2015 issue of SA Rugby magazine

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Simon Borchardt