With just over two first half minutes to play in their Guinness Six Nations clash, Ireland winger Mack Hansen picks up a loose ball just shy of the French line. Three strides will take him across the whitewash, secure the bonus point and give Ireland a substantial interval lead over the 2022 grand slammers.  

Step forward the French scrum half, smaller in stature than his rival, but an irresistible force who holds Hansen up until reinforcements arrive to clear the danger. The defender’s feat of strength would leave most observers awestruck, but this is Antoine Dupont, a force of nature for whom common superlatives are insufficient.  

Ireland eventually emerge victorious, inflicting a first defeat in 15 matches on Les Bleus, who will be looking to regain the winning habit against Scotland at the Stade de France and rebuild momentum ahead of the World Cup on home turf later in the year. Dupont is expected to lead the French challenge in the global tournament, and expectations are building around the country that he will be lifting the trophy in Paris on 28 October. 

Had life unfolded differently, the 26-year-old might have been blocking Lionel Messi in Qatar rather than halting Mack Hansen at the Aviva Stadium. And he might have had an eye on the FIFA version of silverware rather than the Webb Ellis Trophy. 

Dupont was born in the town of Lannemezan in the Pyrenees, and brought up in Castelnau-Magnoac, a village with a population of around 800 souls. His father and uncle played for the local side, and it was logical for young Antoine to follow in their footsteps. He joined the village club at the age of four and was quick to make an impression – his mother, Marie-Pierre, has a newspaper cutting that tells how, as a seven-year-old, he was the star of a mini-rugby tournament in 2002, bagging 12 tries and capturing the attention of onlookers.  

However, the game was too easy for the diminutive Dupont, whose effortless success meant he was soon bored with the oval ball and switched to the round version to get his kicks. Thankfully for French rugby a solution was found, and coaches agreed to move him up the age groups to ensure he was sufficiently challenged. His dalliance with football was over. 

Even the moves to stretch the talented youngster did not halt this bundle of energy, whose pace and power were already emerging, according to Jean-Philippe Guerrero, who had set up the local rugby school with a group that included Dupont’s father. 

The coaches sought to encourage the youngster’s teamwork and blunt his destructive power by creating rules that ensured he would pass the ball. He soon outgrew the local scene and began his upward trajectory. 

Initially he joined the youth section at Auch then moved into the professional ranks when he signed for Castres. His team mates included Scot Johnnie Beattie, who noted the newcomer’s exceptional talent. Dupont moved to his current club, Toulouse, at the age of 20, having starred for a struggling France side in the Under 20 World Cup earlier that year.  

Within 15 months of moving to Toulouse, he had forged a half-back partnership with Romain Ntamack that has been instrumental in landing titles for club and country. That hinge has matured and the pair now pull the strings whatever shirt they are wearing.  

Dupont made his international debut off the bench against Italy in the 2017 Six Nations, but suffered a setback the following year when he sustained a cruciate ligament injury that led to nine months on the side lines. 

He returned better than ever, bagging three tries against Perpignan in his first match back, and continuing to build a reputation that has earned him numerous accolades including the World Rugby player of the year award in 2021. 

The role of the scrum half can be as a distributor, a sniping runner or as an additional flanker. Dupont’s style falls into the latter group, where his vision, strength and ability to see openings mean he is constantly posing questions for opposition defences.  

He has said of his role, “When you feel that you are beating a defender, there is a rush of adrenalin, and that’s what gives me pleasure. Nines are often labelled just as passers and strategists, but that’s not what I enjoy most. That’s not my game.”        

Ahead of the Six Nations, Dupont insisted that for now, the World Cup is little more than a date on the calendar, saying, “It’s in the background. We all have it in our heads but we barely mentioned it during our preparations for the tournament. If you look too far ahead you will get it wrong.”     

That said, he has ambitiously cast an eye to 2024 and the possibility of playing for France in the sevens tournament at the Paris Olympics. He has already spoken to Toulouse bosses to clear the way for making himself available, should sevens selectors come calling.       

With fame has come a higher profile that includes magazine photoshoots, a Bastille Day flight over the Champs-Elysees in Paris in the cockpit of a French air force plane, and the role of starter for a stage of last year’s Tour de France which rolled out from Castelnau-Magnoac.     

However, despite the trappings of his status, Dupont remains grounded, returning to his home village during downtime at Toulouse. His family runs a cafe in the village and his elder brother Clement, stand off for the Magnoac club which plays in regional leagues, is a pig breeder. Several players, including the captain Lucas Desbets, remember the early steps of their friend. They tell of ‘Toto’s’ innate talent, hard work, elusive running and his reluctance to pass. They point to the humility and modesty that still mark Dupont, despite his evolution.  

His mother also insists that her son remains the same modest individual, although she does admit that his success has had an impact on her life – collecting newspaper cuttings is now a more time-consuming exercise.