Building the Perfect Six Nations Player: The French defender Paul Gustard rates as better than Maro Itoje

Jared Wright
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Perfect Player - Six Nations with Paul Gustard.

Perfect Player - Six Nations with Paul Gustard.

What would the Perfect Six Nations Player look like? Planet Rugby have teamed up with Two Cents Rugby, eToro and a host of former players and coaches to answer that question.

This six-part series is brought to you by eToro, the official investing and trading partner of Premiership Rugby, where we dive into the different attributes players bring to a team and head to the lab to piece together the perfect Six Nations player, getting insight from some of rugby’s top minds.

Just like you can build your ideal investing portfolio on eToro, we will combine attributes like kicking, power, speed, defence, and leadership into something unstoppable on the rugby field.

Defence is first up, and we have recruited the help of former England assistant and now Stade Francais defence coach Paul Gustard.

Perfect defender

“I try and coach the person more than the system; I think the system is quite straightforward. I don’t try and overcomplicate it because I’m not too bright, so it’s easier to keep it simple, but I look for people that have got that emotional desire, the mental capacity to have the fight and the grit resilience and those unseen traits that make a good defender and a good rugby player,” Gustard detailed in what he believes makes a good defender.

The Stade Francais coach holds former Saracens and Namibia captain Jacques Burger in high regard, ‘the man who invented the face tackle’, for his ‘ferocious’ tackling.

Burger does not fit the parameters for our Perfect Player, but Gustard highlighted his mental capacity for defence and physical dominance as key traits.

“The three players that I thought about hard, including one guy that I coach and another I have coached in the past, so I do want to be loyal to the guys I have coached,” he explained.

“The first is Juan Ignacio Brex, a very good defensive reader who tackles well and brings a lot of energy to the defensive line. Tommy Reffell, who plays for Wales, is a great player; he is excellent over the ball and had a great weekend as well. But the guy I went for was Paul Gabrillagues – our captain at Stade Francais who plays second-row for France.”

Paul Gabrillagues

Gustard explained that Gabrillagues ticks the boxes in the two aspects on defence that makes him a perfect defender.

“The reason is for me, with defence there are two aspects that you look at. There is the actual defending ability, the ability to read what’s happening, the ability to find space in the defensive line and the work ethic to go forward on a kick chase and scramble to get back and the ability to slow down the ball,” he said.

“Then there is the tackle itself, so how effective you are in that zone, what’s your tackle fight after tackle like, and I find that in rugby now we expect big things from the centres like Brex, we expect it from back-rowers like Reffell or Aaron Wainwright.

“But as a defence coach, you are looking for your tight five players to make a big number of tackles. The big men that have the ability to stop the power and arrest momentum for the attack, and you’re looking for these guys to make 15 tackles a game because that actually adds up for your defensive intensity.

“The back-row and centres can only tackle every other tackle, you have two guys in the backfield, you have a miss pass taking away two or three defenders each time, so you need that smart player that can work hard.”

Gabrillagues returned to action for France in their opening Six Nations match against Ireland on Friday evening, earning his first cap since 2019.

Top two

While the French set-up overlooked him in recent years, Gustard could not have spoken more highly of him and ranked him as among the two best locks he has coached, ahead of some England greats.

“The reason I picked Paul is not only because I coach him but he is actually in the top four in the Top 14 for dominant tackles, he is in the top six for total tackles – bearing in mind that he has played three games less than the guys above him,

“He is also in the top four for lineout steals, so defensively, lineout pressure, and his actual work rate is second to none. He and Courtney Lawes are probably the two best second-rows I have ever coached, and I have coached Maro Itoje, Steve Borthwick and George Kruis, to name just three.

“Paul brings everything that I look for in his work ethic, energy, desire and application.”

The Perfect Six Nations Player series is brought to by eToro, the official investing and trading partner of Premiership Rugby.

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