OITA, 19 Oct - It took Guilhem Guirado time to assert himself.
A World U21 champion in 2006 and first called up to the French team for the 2008 Six Nations Championship, the hooker, above, had to earn his place by stepping out of the shadow of former players, notably William Servat and Dimitri Szarzewski.
Of his first 20 appearances, he started only one. The rest of the time, as at the World Cup in 2011, he had to wait, sent to the stands more often than he got a game.
Then in 2014, on tour in Australia, the Catalan was given a chance and took it. The series against the Wallabies was his stepping stone: in 53 French test matches since, he has been dropped only five times. At RWC 2015, Guirado was first-choice hooker and made captain by head coach Guy Noves.
He retained the armband when Jacques Brunel replaced Noves, but endured a difficult Six Nations in 2016. He had several testing months with his club Toulon before France fell to heavy defeats against Wales and England.
The figures do him no favours. He has captained France 31 times - the sixth highest in Les Bleus history - but Guirado's teams have lost more often than they have won (12 wins, 18 losses, 1 draw). There were rumours he would be replaced by Jefferson Poirot, but the players stood behind him and he kept the captaincy.
That should have been the end of the affair, but doubts remained. Asked on Wednesday about Guirado, young French centre Pierre-Louis Barassi was brief: "Guilhem is a very good captain. There is no controversy over the captaincy."
It is a sensitive issue. Guirado, injured during the summer, started only one of France's three warm-up matches. In August, Brunel introduced him to the press as "a leader" and not "the captain", and since the start of the World Cup, the hooker has made the starting line-up only once, against Argentina, before passing the No.2 jersey to Camille Chat and the armband to Louis Picamoles and then on to Poirot.
"The armband belongs to Guilhem Guirado, he is the captain, he spoke to the team this week (before the Tonga game)," Poirot insisted. "Guilhem is the captain, he will remain so. His word is important but in this context, actions matter more than words."
Finally, for the quarter-final against Wales in Oita on Sunday, the management made their decision: Guirado would be the hooker and captain of France. "There was no question about it," said Brunel.
And so Guirado will lead the charge in the most important match for Les Bleus since the World Cup in 2015. Whatever happens next, and bearing in mind the problems within the French camp since RWC 2011, this game will determine whether this tournament in Japan is a success for France or not.
The future Montpellier player will have to deliver on the basics - at the lineout and especially in a scrum, which has struggled since the first match of RWC 2019. He has to defend well and, finally, he has to lead a team that too often loses its way.
Guirado has always needed time to establish himself, but now the time has come to make his mark as captain.