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Top 14: in Toulouse, Paul Graou shines in the shadow of Antoine Dupont

Obviously, the Stade Toulousain players all have the Champions Cup final in mind, on May 25, against Leinster.

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Top 14: in Toulouse, Paul Graou shines in the shadow of Antoine Dupont

Obviously, the Stade Toulousain players all have the Champions Cup final in mind, on May 25, against Leinster. How to do otherwise... Except that before that, the reigning French champions must secure their second place in the ranking, synonymous with direct qualification for the semi-finals of the Top 14, and this requires two matches: the reception at the Stadium French Paris, leader, and a trip to Montpellier, which has the knife between its teeth to avoid 13th place.

As soon as qualification for the continental final was achieved against Harlequins, Toulouse manager Ugo Mola was clear: “The group will turn around. We will try to play the game of freshness. And honestly, we have players who deserve to be exposed against teams like Stade Français or Montpellier. Among them, we find scrum half Paul Graou who, for two seasons now, has been Antoine Dupont's official understudy.

Also read: Top 14: A Graou-Mallia hinge, Capuozzo back... the composition of Stade Toulousain for the classico.

It's not easy to live in the shadow of one of the best players in the world, the gondola head of French rugby. The two players know each other from having trained in Auch, in neighboring Gers. This season is special for Antoine, who joined - intermittently - the French 7s team with a view to the Paris 2024 Olympic Games.

And, during these absences, Paul Graou shone in the red and black jersey, proving that he can take over effectively as number 9. Against Oyonnax, swept 61-34 on the 15th day, he even scored a resounding quadruplet, only the 10th achieved in the history of the Top 14. From shadow to light. “It had never happened to me or a long time ago, in a youth tournament perhaps. Among the pros, I had just scored a double, it was in the first leg against these same Oyonnaxiens (Toulouse success 21-27 during the 3rd day, Editor's note),” he said.

And Ugo Mola added at a press conference: “Everyone was worried about the absence of Antoine Dupont (then at the World Cup), it was the subject of the week. I'm very happy for Paul, he played a great part. What I appreciated, beyond his four tries, were his outings from camp. It’s good for him and for the team.”

Recently, the scrum half returned, to our colleagues from France Bleu Occitanie, on this label of official “double” of the captain of the XV of France. Honestly. “I understand the term because it’s like that, and it’s the same for his understudy in the France team. At first, I saw it a little pejoratively but I don't worry, it's the journalists, they have to find terms. I try to ignore that even if sometimes it can be hurtful, he confides. But hey, it's part of the game, I don't ask myself any more questions than that. I learned from this status, from having to replace Antoine and from all the demands that there were around this position. Now it no longer affects me and that’s why I enjoy it too.”

After three seasons at Montauban, where he began his professional career, then a stint at Agen, Paul Graou, 26, knew what awaited him in Toulouse. But he manages to do well with the Rouge et Noir. His season is even very full with the repeated absences of Antoine Dupont (World Cup then France 7): he has already played 22 matches including 17 as a starter, much more than last year for his debut (10 starts in 15 matches ).

He himself admits that there was “a little click” this season: “The group we have here is hyper-competitive, so we really have to gain confidence and be able to assert ourselves, even if sometimes, given the quality of the workforce, it’s complicated. Sometimes there is frustration at not playing but you have to maintain confidence to express yourself well on the pitch on Saturday.

In the meantime, he will have his chance in the matches which come before the predictable return of the “boss” Dupont for the elimination games. Emulation will be in full swing with players used to being in the shadows. Proof of the incredible wealth of the Toulouse squad, since these “doubles” would certainly be indisputable starters in many elite clubs.

Asked about Dupont’s absence, Australian second row Richie Arnold insisted: “It’s funny, everyone asks me that. “Toto” is an incredible player. We will miss him but Toulouse is not a one-man team. He left to chase his Olympic dream but Paul Graou is a good player, he can replace him. He has already demonstrated it several times during this special season.

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