Exclusive: Charles Ollivon on injury, French success and leading the Barbarians

James While

Spend a moment with Charles Ollivon and you encounter a man of charisma, charm and giant stature.

At his very best, the French flanker, known to all as ‘The Boss’, is a world XV player, one of the most influential back-rows in the sport and a peerless leader.

Away from the game for six months due to a horrendous ACL injury, the big Basque seems to be getting back to somewhere near his best and, with a World Cup in his home country next year, he is raring to go and hoping to get back to his heady playing heights of 2021.

Period of self-reflection

“Injuries are part of a rugby man’s life,” Ollivon told Planet Rugby.

“Of course, it’s never good to miss such a long period, but after my previous shoulder injury in 2017, I knew it would be a period of both frustration but also self-reflection. I learned a lot about how to cope with a long absence before and this time I was well prepared for the reality of the lay-off.

“I think it allowed me to approach this with a far more positive mindset, working on skills and fitness issues that perhaps you don’t get that much time for in a usual scenario, and making sure that I told myself I realised that I would get over this.

“Now, it’s an absolute pleasure to be back and to build my form – and the Barbarians fixture will be a great test of where I am right now.”

Ollivon’s reign as French skipper started in 2020, when a packed Stade de France saw a thrilling win over England with their leader crossing for two brilliant tries.

The momentum and selection from that match laid the platform for their Grand Slam success in 2022, albeit under the temporary stewardship of Antoine Dupont in the Toulon man’s absence.

Whilst his rehab continued, so did the progress of the team and Ollivon is extremely pleased at the work done by his teammates during his lay-off.

“I’ve been so impressed with how the guys have developed in the last year or so,” he said.

“I guess this journey started in 2019 in Japan, where a lot of the young players started to both bond and gel and also to build our targets. This isn’t about a 23, it’s about a much wider group of exceptional players that have added a real depth to the squad.

“We are not so much rugby players, we are a group of really close friends that share the same vision and share the same goals. Our friendships are everything – they bond us and they define us, we celebrate our success together and we deal with setbacks together.

“Our wish is to improve every day in everything we do: be better players, better people and to share and celebrate those improvements together.”

Ollivon’s road to recovery has seen him getting back to something approaching his best, and that ‘best’ is something very special indeed.

Many notable commentators described his last 20 minutes against Wales in 2021 as one of the finest individual performances seen in the Six Nations. That breathless last quarter saw him put in a remarkable 14 tackles, three turnovers, a try offload and a personal score from five metres that set up France’s memorable win.

In short, it was one of those individual performances that are absolutely career-defining and one that both broke Welsh hearts and further fuelled the self-belief that now characterises France.

“I go back to my point about this being wider than just 23 players,” he said. “We have built great depth over the last few seasons. In my absence, Francois Cros and Anthony Jelonch have been really amazing on the flanks for France. Our depth is such an important factor and both of those guys have stepped up incredibly well.

“All the guys have worked together to develop our style and culture. I cannot emphasise enough the quality of the group and just how well they’ve moved into that space of ‘owning and defining’ games.

“We know the pressure ahead of us and every day we get more pressure, the expectation is insane! But we don’t question it, we embrace it and we refuse to ask ourselves of things that give us doubt.

“We call it our ‘tough energy’ and tough energy is an important quality; you have to keep that energy in the group and embrace the challenges it brings if you want to succeed.”

Against the Barbarians, the flanker leads a team that could be France in all but name.

For some, this is an end-of-season run out, a celebration and something that not many take particularly seriously in terms of the result. But with England and the Baa-Baas naming sides near Test standard, there’s an edge of realism in this match and for Ollivon himself, a big challenge of his recovery from injury.

“Look, it’s an honour to play for and lead the Barbarians,” he added. “The spirit and values have absolutely enchanted me and I have learned so much about them, their history and their culture.

“Tomorrow will be at something near real Test match intensity and will be a great test for my current levels, but above all, it’s that culture, and I am really proud to lead that tradition, ending my season in such a great event.”

We thank Charles for his time and Barbarians FC for this interview.

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