Charles Ollivon sets out to make Ireland pay after return from long-term injury

Former France skipper back in the Six Nations after 15 months on the sideline due to ACL tear

Charles Ollivon’s features, lantern jawed, with the frame of an armoire, might just as well have been chiselled from the granite of the Pyrenees. Born in the foothills of the mountain range in the village of St-Pée in the Basque Country, he honed an athletic physique that would take him from the family farm to international rugby.

It’s an image that sits neatly on a superficial level but less so when peeling back the veneer. Ollivon has been bedevilled by injuries, the most intrusive of which were a shoulder issue (2017) and a torn cruciate knee ligament in 2021 which kept him sidelined long past the initial prognosis for his return.

If the body was susceptible, the mind was not, Ollivon demonstrated a steely resolve to push through the rehabilitation until he re-emerged to resume his life as a rugby player, one that he had left as the captain of France. In his absence Les Tricolores won a Grand Slam under the on-pitch leadership of Antoine Dupont.

Rugby was a passion from a young age, following in the boot prints of his father Jean-Michel, and on to the turf of the St-Pée Union Club (SPUC). Mother Brigitte and older brother, Alexandre, ensured that the Ollivon famille was synonymous with SPUC, a loyalty that survived a move to the next town down the Nivelle valley, Ustaritz.


At 21, in 2014, Midi Olympique branded Charles Ollivon ‘The Phenomenon,’ while an uncapped player with Bayonne, and later that year he made his debut for France against Fiji in a November Test.

The following year he joined Toulon, but injuries decimated his opportunities with the national side to a point where his only Six Nations appearance between his debut and 2019 was a defeat to Ireland in the Aviva Stadium (2017). The then French coach Phillipe St André brought him to the 2019 World Cup in Japan where he played several matches.

In January 2020, the new French head coach Fabien Galthié announced Ollivon as his captain, an inspired appointment. The six-foot, six-inch flanker led France to a 24-17 victory over England in his first match in the new role, bagging a brace of tries.

The following season in the Six Nations he grabbed a try in a 15-13 victory in Dublin and another in a 32-30 win that denied Wales a Grand Slam: his statistics from that game, 21 tackles, 13 carries, three turnovers in the last 10 minutes alone epitomise his qualities, that menacing, marauding presence on both sides of the ball.

A torn ACL in June during a Toulon match would eventually keep him sidelined for 15 months. On discovering the extent of the damage, he remarked: “Injuries are part of a career. I will rehab this cruciate ligament tear as I have to, take the necessary time to be ready for the big matches that are coming and do everything I can to come back even stronger.”

He was as good as his word, albeit it took considerably longer than first mooted. Ollivon said in an interview with James While (Planet Rugby) ahead of captaining the Barbarians last summer: “Of course, it’s never good to miss such a long period, but after my previous shoulder injury in 2017, I knew it would be a period of both frustration but also self-reflection.

“I learned a lot about how to cope with a long absence before and this time I was well prepared for the reality of the lay-off.

“I think it allowed me to approach this with a far more positive mindset, working on skills and fitness issues that perhaps you don’t get that much time for in a usual scenario, and making sure that I told myself I realised that I would get over this.”

Ollivon also offered an interesting insight to the camaraderie with the French squad. He said: “We are not so much rugby players, we are a group of close friends that share the same vision and share the same goals. Our friendships are everything – they bond us, and they define us, we celebrate our success together.

“Our wish is to improve every day in everything we do: be better players, better people and to share and celebrate those improvements together.” In his absence Anthony Jelonch and Francois Cros have consistently stepped up to the fill the role he vacated.

Now that he’s back, he was restored to the backrow for the opening Six Nations game, the narrow victory against Italy alongside Jelonch and Gregory Alldritt. Ollivon’s yellow card in the 50th minute might have taken a little of the gloss off but not much, his contribution typically conspicuous.

If Ireland are in any way distracted at the breakdown then Ollivon and his buddies will make them pay; as he has done in the past and as Galthié will hope, will do for some time to come.

John O'Sullivan

John O'Sullivan

John O'Sullivan is an Irish Times sports writer