Matthieu Lartot (43) has been commenting on France Télévisions rugby matches for almost two decades, exactly since England – Italy in 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 night in Marseille – “the only team that the French version of Galthié has never met” recalls, consultant couple Dimitri Yachvili confided 20 minutes vision of his profession.
What difference does it make to comment on a winning French team?
Change everything. I have known both periods since 2009. In 2010 there is the Grand Slam and behind it, the long crossing of the field, very painful moments to live. It becomes cumbersome to comment only on defeats, even if they have sometimes been described as encouraging. In fact, they weren’t encouraging. What emerged from the team was pretty grim.
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. Of course France probably won’t win all these matches until the World Cup, but we are savoring the moment.
Are there any game phases you particularly like to comment on?
The most beautiful thing is obviously when you approach the promised land, the goal. This is what we experienced last Saturday with Damian Penaud’s performance. We are in the “time of money”, we are completely inhabited and transported by the energy of the stadium. There are games in which sometimes you get bored, as happened last weekend with exchanges of kicks, quite discouraging phases of the game.
And then it happens that there is a spark. Damian Penaud has achieved something extraordinary. We dream of having these actions to comment on, and they are not that numerous. The role of the commentator is to be in this precise moment, to transcribe the emotion that runs through the stadium and to return it to the spectator who does not have the opportunity to be there with us.
The phases of “ping-pong rugby “ are the worst to describe?
No. We try to give the stakes, in particular tactics, of these phases, which may seem repetitive and without interest. The action I fear most is injury. I can’t look at the twist images. When a player “catches” a knee or ankle, he freezes me.
Often caring for seriously injured people takes time and one is obliged to keep one’s 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 has particularly affected you?
So far I have been lucky not to be faced with things that are too serious. But I remember the young Ezeala from Clermont literally “electrocuted” in the field against Racing 92, in a clash with Vakatawa. I wasn’t commenting on the game but I was at the Arena. I wouldn’t 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, reporters and observers were excited about a big tackle. Have your comments evolved along with the concussion debate?
In the past, we commentators have sometimes glorified this sort of thing a little bit. I remember commenting on Stade Toulousain matches with Isitolo Maka who was known for rushing through the crowd and doing damage to his percussion. We try to be measured even if we must not deny what this sport is, made up of confrontation and combat.
What I regret, and I have made my mea culpa on this subject, is that I have had very clumsy formulas. On some 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 attentive to the words I use.
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 at Canal or beIN Sports, we do not cater to an audience of enthusiasts. In the Champions Cup it is a little less true because we have a more informed audience, but when the matches of the French team are, when we do spectators like during the last France – England with peaks of 10 million viewers …
We can consider that today the rugby audience in France is a niche, between about 600,000 and one million people. For the rest it is the people who watch the games because it is the French team that plays, because it is a historic event like the Six Nations Tournament … We have to try to popularize, even if I don’t like that term very much, because rugby has very complex rules and there are many Anglicisms.
I pass an instruction to the consultant: you systematically explain the rule even if you can blame us for those who follow 30 games a year and who knows what a ruck is. But we are not talking to them.
You like making jokes from time to time. Is it prepared or spontaneous?
In Fabien’s time (Galthié), there were friends who sent us lists of five words to be included in the game. The journalist on the sideline and all those who spoke were worried and he was the one who managed to say the most words. He has always existed. Thierry Roland, when he commented on a game for the French football team, gave the doctor on the field the name of a friend of him.
On the word games, however, there is nothing prepared. It is still sport, we are here to have fun, 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 “joking” with each other, as long as it doesn’t exclude for the viewer. Word lists were a bit of a “private joke”, so we stopped by a few years ago.
What expression would you like to leave behind, like “the pig is in the wheat” or “the hut fell on the dog” by the duo Salviac – Albaladejo?
There is also Roger Couderc’s Allez les petits, which is transgenerational and arguably the most impactful expression ever found for rugby… I don’t have a ready-made expression. A company sent me a frame at the end of the tournament, with a sentence of mine, and with a message telling me that many people wanted to have it at home. For me it was a fairly harmless sentence, during the completely irrational victory over the Welsh during the 2021 Tournament (32-30).
My wish is that people remember a great moment of a match that marked them and that they can remember the accompanying commentary. This is what interests me, more than a slightly cryptic phrase that would remain.
When France beat the All Blacks last November (40-25), I said “Goodbye to encouraging defeats, welcome to the new era of the Blues”. It’s not something I’ll bring out in every game, but I think it’s the right word at the right time, like Thierry Gilardi when Zidane was sent off. What Gilardi has brought to the sports commentary, and I subscribe to this, is to try to be as fair as possible, with the most powerful formula that adheres to the moment we are experiencing.