Categories: World

South Africa: Trials, “ping pong rugby”, hard game … Matthieu Lartot shares his commentary tricks

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Matthieu Lartot (43 years old) has been commentating on rugby matches on France Télévisions for almost two decades, exactly since England – Italy of the 2003 Six Nations Tournament. But it was in 2009 that the journalist became the voice of the XV of France. Before the shock against the South African world champions on Saturday evening in Marseille – “the only team that the French team Galthié version has never met” he recalls, the pair of consultant Dimitri Yachvili confided to 20 minutes vision of his profession.

What difference does it make to comment on a winning French team?

It changes everything. I have known both periods since 2009. In 2010, there is the Grand Slam and behind, the long crossing of the field, very painful moments to live. It becomes cumbersome to comment only on defeats, even if sometimes they have been described as encouraging. In fact, they weren’t encouraging. What emerged from the team was quite bleak.

We do this job hoping to accompany an epic and experience great things with our national team. Today, everything changes in the emotional dimension, in the vibrations in the stadiums, with the smiles on the faces of the players. Obviously the France team will probably not win all these matches until the World Cup, but we savor the moment.

Matthieu Lartot made the commentary pair with Fabien Galthié until the latter’s appointment as coach of the XV of France, after the 2019 World Cup. – Stephane Allaman / Sipa

Are there any game phases that you particularly like to comment on?

The nicest thing is obviously when you approach the promised land, the goal. This is what we experienced last Saturday with the test of Damian Penaud. We are in “money time”, we are completely inhabited and transported by the energy of the stadium. There are games where you can sometimes get bored, which was the case last weekend with exchanges of kicks, fairly off-putting phases of play.

And then it happens that there is a spark. Damian Penaud has achieved something quite extraordinary. We dream of having these actions to comment on, and they are not that numerous. The role of the commentator is to be at this precise moment, to transcribe the emotion that runs through the stadium and to restore it to the viewer who does not have the chance to be there with us.

The phases of “ping-pong rugby » are they the worst to describe?

No. We try to give the stakes, in particular tactical, of these phases, which can seem repetitive and without interest. The action I fear the most is the injury. I can’t seem to watch the twist images. When a player “gets” a knee or an ankle, it freezes me.

Often, taking care of seriously injured people takes time and you are obliged to keep your word…

I pass an instruction to the director: do not dwell on this kind of images. It is information, but for me it is necessary to show slow motion and only one.

Is there an injury that particularly marked you?

I have been lucky so far not to have been confronted with things that were too serious. But I remember young Ezeala from Clermont who had been literally “electrocuted” on the field against Racing 92, in a clash with Vakatawa. I was not commenting on the match but I was at the Arena. I would not have liked to be behind a microphone that day. I have a son who plays rugby. I always put myself in the shoes of the families of players who watch the game from their sofa and ask themselves 10,000 questions.

Until recently, journalists and observers raved about a huge tackle. Have your comments evolved along with the concussion debate?

In the past, we commentators have sometimes glorified this sort of thing a little. I remember commenting on matches of Stade Toulousain with Isitolo Maka who was known to rush into the pile and do damage on his percussion. We try to be measured even if we must not deny what this sport is, made of confrontation and combat.

What I regret, and I made my mea culpa on this subject, is to have had very clumsy formulas. On certain concussions, I had imagined my point by saying for example that the player no longer had the light in all the rooms. Many of us have evolved on this. I am much more careful with the words I use.

Toulouse third line Isitolo Maka, symbol of physical-physical rugby, during a French championship match against Narbonne, November 29, 2003. – Nathalie Saint-Affre / AFP

In rugby, there are often pre-established patterns on the phases of the game. Is it the same with your consultant?

What is very complicated for us is that unlike our colleagues from Canal or beIN Sports, we are not aimed at an audience of aficionados. In the European Cup, it’s a little less true because we have a more informed public, but when it’s the matches of the French team, when we do audiences like during the last France – England with peaks at 10 million viewers…

We can consider that today, the rugby audience in France is a niche, between 600,000 and a million people roughly. For the rest, it’s people who watch the matches because it’s the French team that plays, because it’s a historic event like the Six Nations Tournament… We have to try to popularize, even if I don’t I don’t really like that term, because rugby has very complex rules and there are a lot of Anglicisms.

I pass an instruction to the consultant: systematically explain the rule even if that can be reproached to us by those who follow 30 matches per year and who know what a ruck is. But we are not talking to them.

You like to slip in jokes from time to time. Is it prepared or spontaneous?

At the time of Fabien (Galthié), there were friends who sent us lists of five words to place in the match. The journalist at the edge of the field and all those who intervened were concerned and it was to the one who managed to pronounce the most words. It has always existed. Thierry Roland, when he commented on a match for the French football team, gave the doctor who entered the field the name of one of his friends.

On the puns, on the other hand, there is nothing prepared. It’s still sport, we’re here to have a good time, to try to convey emotions but also a little humor. The style may displease some people, it doesn’t matter, but we don’t refrain from “messing around” with each other, as long as it’s not excluding for the viewer. Word lists were a bit of a “private joke”, so we stopped a few years ago.

What expression would you like to leave behind, such as “the pig is in the corn” or “the hut fell on the dog” of the Salviac – Albaladejo duo?

There is also “Allez les petits” by Roger Couderc, which is transgenerational and without doubt the most impactful expression that has ever been found for rugby… I don’t have a ready-made expression. A company sent me at the end of the Tournament a manager, with one of my sentences, and with a message telling me that lots of people wanted to have it at home. It was a fairly innocuous sentence for me, during the completely irrational victory over the Welsh during the 2021 Tournament (32-30).

My desire is for people to remember a great moment from a match that marked them, and that they may remember the commentary that goes with it. That’s what interests me, more than a somewhat sibylline phrase that would remain.

When the France team beat the All Blacks last November (40-25), I said “Farewell to encouraging defeats, welcome to the new era of the Blues”. It’s not something I will bring out every game, but I think it’s the right word at the right time, like Thierry Gilardi during Zidane’s red card. What Gilardi brought to sports commentary, and I subscribe to this, is to try to be as fair as possible, with the most powerful formula that sticks to the moment we are living.

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