Damian Penaud; France’s free spirit who refuses to be tamed


Damien Benaud is arguably the most unusual of the lot. It's definitely the most prolific. Since making his debut for France in 2017, the 27-year-old Benaud has scored 36 tries, two fewer than the 38 amassed by Serge Blanco between 1980 and 1991. The legendary full-back needed 93 Tests to reach that mark; It took Benaud just 53 caps.

In awarding Penaud his Player of the Week award last week for his try and two assists in Bordeaux's 34-14 win over La Rochelle, Midi Olympique described him as “one of the greatest scoring machines in the history of French rugby”.

In eight seasons of club rugby, Benaud scored 52 tries, a top 14 and a European-best 20 tries. Most have fallen wearing Clermont's yellow, but this season Benaud has showcased his goalscoring skills for Bordeaux; He made his debut for the Atlantic Coast club in November, after the World Cup, and has since scored 16 tries in fifteen matches (including four in the Champions Cup, an important factor in the fact that they are third in the top 14.

Damien Benaud is one of the most exciting runners in the world (Photo by Jeff Bachaud/Getty Images)

Benaud first came to the attention of French rugby fans in 2015 when he was a member of the under-20 team that competed in the World Cup for that age group. He scored two tries against England in their 30-18 group win with Thomas Ramos (now Toulouse and France) starting the conversion. “He has huge physical potential, but technically he is still a work in progress,” said Fabian Bellos, then Under-20 coach, from Benaud. “He has the ability to reach the highest level.”

Benaud again played for the Under-20s in 2016, this time in a team that included Antoine Dupont. The pair are separated by two months in age, and are closely related in other respects. Dupont was the 1,101st player to represent France, and Benaud the 1,105th, the latter now having 53 caps to Dupont's 52.

They have little in common in personality. DuPont is determined, disciplined, driven and sophisticated. Penaud is more relaxed. This is reflected in their presence on social media platforms.

There is something authentic and refreshing about Penaud. He doesn't seem to care what people think of him, which is rare in the age of social media where most famous faces are hypersensitive about the image they project.

Penaud posts irregularly on Instagram, but has clearly given up on A glamorous life that includes ad campaigns for Louis Vuitton and carrying the Olympic torch on its way to Paris for the Games this summer.

Penaud occasionally appears on other people's

There is something authentic and refreshing about Penaud. He doesn't seem to care what people think of him, which is rare in the age of social media where most famous faces are hypersensitive about the image they project.

Damien Benaud
Damien Benaud has quickly become a fan favorite with Bordeaux fans following his move from Clermont (Photo by Romain Perruccio/Getty Images)

Benaud carries this unorthodox style onto the pitch. With his rolling socks and languid running style, Pinault has deceptive pace, even if he lacks the blazing pace of Bordeaux's other winger, Louis Piel-Pillard. What Benaud does have is attacking vision, the ability to amplify the magnitude of what is happening in a split second. That's why he has so many tries and so many assists. He also has big man – 6ft 3ins and 15 stone – wiggle fingers.

One of the most striking statistics from the 2023 international rugby season was his tackle evasion statistics. New Zealander Will Jordan came in third place with 34%, second was Akaki Tabotsadze from Georgia with 57%, and the most elusive player was Benaud with 75%.

The unpredictability of Benaud's running lines, and the strength of his upper body to fend off attackers, explains this elusiveness. It's instinctive, but it's also an aspect of his game that he's been encouraged to hone since Fabien Galthie became coach after the 2019 Club World Cup. In 2021, Galthie's attacking coach, Laurent Labet, described his philosophy, explaining that he wants France's wingers to have “freedom”. They can “unbox” and come and look for balls. Labette said this was a particular strength for Gabin Villiers but it was “less obvious” for Benaud, “who often sticks to his line”.

He's an athlete, a player who can get into good positions offensively and make the most of not-so-obvious situations, but we'd like Damian to do more. In two turnovers, instead of passing the ball, he moves and misses our players.

Laurent Labet

Benaud was still moving in 2021 from the midfield position – where he began his professional career – to the wing. Positionally, he is now a smarter player on the wing, at least offensively. The only weakness in his game is defence, something that top teams have been known to exploit.

Penaud performed poorly against the All Blacks in the opening match of the RWC last year, being at fault for both tries scored by Mark Telea. Labit did not exclude Benaud in his post-match analysis, saying that there were “areas he can improve in defence”.

He also implied that Penaud could be a bit of a maverick at times. “He's an athlete, a player who can get into good positions offensively and make the most of situations that aren't entirely clear, but we would like Damian to do more. In a couple of turnovers, instead of passing the ball, he moves and misses our players.

In Labette's estimation, Benaud has only achieved 70% of what he can do at international level. He knows that and needs to work.”

Damien Benaud
Benaud is happy to interact with fans but has little interest in managing his image on stage (Photo by Anne-Christine Pujolat/Getty Images)

It was a harsh assessment of Benaud's contribution, given his impressive goal attempt rate, but Benaud is a man who needs to be pushed. In his early years at Claremont, his nonchalance distracted some of his more disciplined teammates. “He would arrive late to training, wearing flip-flops and with one eye still closed,” Aurelien Ruggieri recalls. “He was ridiculously talented, but he didn't make the most of the opportunity he was given,” he added.

He would annoy his fly-half, Camille Lopes, with his inability to remember the full-back's movements, and according to another Clermont player, Johan Behirigaray, Ruggeri would sometimes play the role of the club's 'policeman', pulling Benaud when his standards were lower than expected.

Another trait that sets Benaud apart from his peers is that he rarely gives interviews. He doesn't want the media, social or otherwise spotlight – he just wants to play rugby.

To Galthie's credit, she did not try to rein in Benaud. On the contrary, it gave him greater license to seek attempts. He will probably always remain a little suspect in defense because it is not in his nature to be organized and disciplined.

“Damien is a free spirit… one has to allow him his freedom,” said Thomas Levermont, who coached Benaud at under-20 level in 2016. He likes to have the ball and looks for space. I can't think of anyone I can compare him to. He is a unique player.

Another trait that sets Benaud apart from his peers is that he rarely gives interviews. He doesn't want the media, social or otherwise spotlight – he just wants to play rugby.





Source

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *