Nigel Owens column: Antoine Dupont could even rival Gareth Edwards as the greatest – Nigel Owens

Sometimes, as a referee, you realise you are in the company of rugby genius on the field of play.

You still treat the player in exactly the same way others when it comes to decision-making, but you just see his skill-set close up and realise he’s a cut above the others. Technically brilliant, invariably quick, but also faster in speed of thought, too.

I was fortunate enough to share a pitch with some of these individuals. Dan Carter, Richie McCaw and Brian O’Driscoll among them. Our own Shane Williams was another.

READ MORE: Nigel reveals top five captains he’s refereed

You could argue who was the best in the world during that period. That was down to personal choice.

Today, though, it’s hard for anyone to disagree that Antoine Dupont is out on his own. Head and shoulders above the others, in my opinion, and there are some pretty decent players around these days, too!

I first came across Dupont when he was a teenager breaking through when I refereed him playing for Toulouse and also a couple of times for France. Young he may have been, but straight away I could see he was a world class player in the making. Dupont had everything – speed, footwork, physicality, reading of the game.

And he was an absolute pleasure to officiate, too. Very different to your normal scrum-halves, who tend to be in your ear, chirping away, telling you what the opposition are supposedly doing wrong. Must be something about the position, I guess!

He was different, quiet, just got on with the game, never moaned, had a great personality on and off the field, a genial smile.

What I saw back then is what everyone has just witnessed in the Six Nations today. His brilliance inspired France to the Grand Slam. Dupont is key to everything they do. It’s not just that individual try he crafted and scored that proved decisive against England, it’s the way he conducts everything else. Organising, kicking, defence. Anything good France do, Dupont is right at the centre of.

For me no-one comes close to him in world rugby at this moment in time. Great players have runs of superb form, then invariably there is a dip, yet he is consistently not just good, but absolutely outstanding. It’s almost freakish that he can hit those heights so often.

The only time I saw Dupont drop below those lofty standards was in the second half versus Wales, and credit for that must go to the Welsh players for the pressure they put on him. They kept him quiet to a degree, but Dupont was captain of the winning team so he still did enough to help his side get over the line.

Carter used to be like this with New Zealand, another great player inspiring a great team. I was asked just this week who was the best 10, him or Jonny Wilkinson?

Jonny was brilliant, a World Cup winner himself, but Carter had an ability that put him out on his own as perhaps the finest of his generation. You could argue McCaw was better, I’m sure any forward would and I certainly saw his qualities close up, whilst Irish folk would doubtless point to O’Driscoll.

At least it was fair debate. Today I don’t see anyone close to matching Dupont and if he carries on at this level for another six or seven years he will be right up there with those aforementioned legends and remembered as one of the true greats of the game.

In fact, and I hesitate to say this in a way, carry on like this and we might even be talking about him in the same category as a certain Gareth Edwards. He, of course, was the best in the world for a decade, is still viewed by many as the greatest rugby player in history, full stop. Rightly so, as well.

But if Dupont can play to this level for another few years, it would be at least a bona fide debate. Put it this way, I wouldn’t want to be the one choosing between the two of them. Dupont looks that special to me.

The previously incomparable Gareth Edwards, here playing for the Barbarians

If Dupont and France shone, for Wales it was a Six Nations that started awfully in Dublin, showed promise in between when we beat Scotland, could have overcome England were it not for a controversial try, were even one misplaced pass away from stopping France’s Grand Slam march, but finished as we had begun in hugely disappointing fashion.

It’s hard to pinpont exactly what went wrong against Italy after the team had done well in the previous three games, albeit gallantly losing in two of them. But at least the Italian full-back Ange Capuozzo showed this is a game for any shape or size with that mesmerising run which set up their winning try. He may not be the biggest or most physical, but Capuozzo proved you still can’t beat sheer pace, dazzling skill and footwork in this great sport of ours.

At 22 years of age, he has a huge future in front of him. Of course, that last minute Italy score has led to any manner of criticism here in Wales as the inquest begins into Welsh rugby, with an awful lot of anger directed the way of the WRU. Unfairly so, in my opinion.

Look, what you have to remember is that the Welsh Rugby Union are responsible for the whole of the game in Wales, from national team down through the under-20s, the regions, the academies and grassroots community clubs.

There is clearly a lot of work to be done, probably at each spectrum I mention there, but surely what is required here is for everybody to buy into it for the good of Welsh rugby. Not just want their own little bit because it might benefit your local club, or the regions, or indeed the national team, which a lot of people only care about.

We each need to pull together for the good of the game here and remember there are a lot of very decent and capable people working at the WRU, individuals who have the best interests of our sport from top to bottom in mind.

Everybody is a little shellshocked after Italy, understandably so, but our great game in Wales has come through these kind of crises before and will do so again.

Pulling together is the best way to achieve that and in the meantime under Wayne Pivac the national team just have to regroup, work out what has just gone wrong, perhaps draft in some new players and go again against South Africa in the summer, next autumn and in next year’s Six Nations.

You never know. If we meet France in the 2023 World Cup Wales might, just might, keep a certain Monsieur Dupont a little quiet again.

I wouldn’t bank on it though. This is a very special player we are privileged to be watching right at this moment in time.


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