On the verge of greatness
October 29, 2012
Gael Fickou is a happy man. There is no real reason why he shouldn't be - he's 18, the new star of Toulouse rugby, a rising star of French rugby and has been called into their squad for the upcoming autumn international series, where he will be challenging for a spot alongside Wesley Fofana and Maxime Mermoz.
Even without this though, he is clearly by nature a happy man. I'm greeted with a big smile and a handshake that would make most people cry. He's also a big man, standing at 6'4" and weighing in at 14 stone but it's his guile, speed and rugby brain that make him stand out, rather than his physique on the pitch.
Born and brought up in La Seyne sur Mer, a suburb of the rugby mad city of Toulon, there was never a question as to what sport he would play. "Although I wasn't a bad football player, it was always rugby for me," Fickou said. "I supported Toulon as a kid and went to the matches when I could, the atmosphere in that stadium is fantastic. When you grow up in La Seyne sur Mer, the standout club, and the local club is Toulon. Even now I always have a look for their results."
A proud Toulonnais, throughout our conversation he is keen to impress his thanks to Toulon for having given him his chance, and that he wishes them nothing but his best. "I didn't leave Toulon because of Maxime Mermoz, there were a lot of factors to take into account, and finally I decided to go to Toulouse. I have absolutely no rancour towards Toulon, none at all. They are doing well this season without me, leaders of the Top 14 and doing well in the Heineken Cup."
This was in response to an anecdote I'd heard that the club wouldn't play him in an Under 20's tournament as they felt he was too young at 17. "Whatever is said or has been said about my departure from Toulon is of no importance to me, I'd rather not talk about it."
His rise has been as speedy and incisive as his play. Starting as a junior in the local side where his brother still plays, he spent two years in the Toulon squad, without playing a professional match, but when Mermoz was drafted in, Fickou decided a move was needed to ensure regular first team rugby. Toulouse took him, gave him his debut on September 8 against Agen, and he made his Heineken Cup debut against Leicester, where he scored a memorable try. I asked him about that try and the response was a study of understatement. "I picked up a loose ball, saw a gap, kicked it, it bounced well and I managed to get across the line."
Toby Flood described him as the next Wesley Fofana after that match. "I'd be lying if I said it wasn't nice to hear. Coming from a player of such class, who plays alongside fantastic players like Tuilagi for his club, and world stars in the English team, I was flattered. It's up to me now to continue to work hard on my game and live up to his words."
The pride in his voice is palpable when he describes his call up to the French squad for the upcoming autumn internationals. "It was with a mixture of surprise and happiness that I learned I'd been selected. Surprise because at 18 I'm still very young, with lots to learn, and I didn't think the call would come as quickly as it has. But the sense of happiness I have in being part of the national squad is difficult to describe." A broad smile appears as he continues, "the first person I told was my mum. She was as happy as I was, although she certainly made sure my feet were kept firmly on the ground."
The move to Toulouse has worked very well for Fickou. Having been given his chance, he has literally enveloped it. He was brought in as a long-term replacement for Yannick Jauzion, for whom he has nothing but praise. "Yannick is a daily support for me. He shares his experiences with me without hiding anything, he's fantastic."
On the battle for places for the 15 de France, he's realistic. "Its clear that I will have to fight for my place. If I want to play at the highest level I have to play against the best players in my position, it's simple. But for me, it's another challenge to face and one I'm ready to take head on."
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