“No one is laugh­ing at the French these days”

Rugby World - - New Talent -

’VE BEEN around a bit in my ca­reer. I am, I’m not ashamed to say, what they call “a jour­ney­man pro­fes­sional”. An hon­est plod­der, un­flashy, trusted to do a solid job of work. This sort of re­li­a­bil­ity has meant I’ve al­ways been able to find a club, as most DoRs like a safe bet, but con­versely it can work against you if you plan on be­com­ing a long-term fix­ture.

The cy­cle goes some­thing like this. In year one of the con­tract, the coaches are pleas­antly sur­prised by what you bring to the squad: you make your tack­les, carry a bit of ball and don’t have hands like flip­pers. They imag­ine that once you’re bed­ded in prop­erly, and un­der their own su­pe­rior tute­lage, your la­tent raz­zle-daz­zle will start to show it­self and you’ll be run­ning in tries and spray­ing out imag­i­na­tive off­loads like a cut-price Sonny Bill.

Then, in year two (or even, if you have a good agent, into year three), they be­gin to re­alise that hit­ting/in­spect­ing rucks is about all you’re good for. Where once your Ron­seal-es­que qual­i­ties were seen as a strength, the stolid yeo­man bit even­tu­ally starts to get stale in the eyes of coaches, fans and team-mates alike. You can feel the low-level re­sent­ment slowly build­ing, the feel­ing you’re tak­ing up space and bud­get that could be bet­ter spent on a younger, more dy­namic and bet­ter-look­ing model, and the time soon comes when you must pack your sports bag and go look­ing for an­other bunch of mugs in need of a Steady Ed­die in their lives.

In scrab­bling around to find a job in this weird world of rugby, you can end up in un­ex­pected places, and the fact I’ve played in all three ma­jor Euro­pean leagues is more by ex­pe­di­ency than de­sign. My time in the dif­fer­ent com­pe­ti­tions means that I spend a lot of time on the sofa when the Euro­pean Cup comes around as, af­ter a decade of tak­ing beat­ings at sta­dia across the con­ti­nent, I can find an ex­cuse to be in­ter­ested in pretty much any team.

Tra­di­tion­ally, clubs from each re­spec­tive league have viewed the Cup in dif­fer­ent ways. For those teams from the Pro12, Euro­pean games have al­ways been seen as the proper stuff amongst the vaguely Mickey Mouse busi­ness of the do­mes­tic sea­son. With Sky do­ing their best to drum up in­ter­est in glam­our ties like Dragons v Ze­bre, this is slowly chang­ing, but the fact re­mains that the Pro12 clubs can’t wait to get into Europe and play some proper rugby.

The ex­cite­ment is gen­er­ally short-lived, of course, as un­less you’re Ir­ish, any re­al­is­tic hopes of pro­gress­ing are likely to be quashed af­ter the first cou­ple of pool games.

IBut that will never stop the Welsh and Scot­tish view­ing them as high­lights of the sea­son.

Con­trast this with the English sides, grind­ing their way through week af­ter week of un­re­lent­ing Premier­ship in­ten­sity. Rather than see­ing each match in Europe as a grand, stand-alone day out, a player’s re­ac­tion as they come in on a Mon­day to start prepa­ra­tions for play­ing one of the French gi­ants is more likely to be a knack­ered, “Christ, here we go again”.

The top English sides are get­ting bet­ter equipped to put up a fight on both fronts, but they’re still play­ing catch up with the Toulons and Rac­ings of the world. These two are chang­ing the old cliché per­cep­tion of the French in Europe – ie, that they weren’t re­ally that both­ered, and the teams that did do well, like Toulouse, did so al­most by ac­ci­dent.

But when I played over there, the stereo­types were all still present and cor­rect. Away days in Europe were ca­sual af­fairs. There was the op­tional glass of red with din­ner the night be­fore, be­muse­ment/dis­gust at Bri­tish ho­tel food and even more be­muse­ment that any­one would choose to stay in a place like Belfast, Llanelli or Le­ices­ter. You got the im­pres­sion that many of the guys didn’t re­ally want to be there, and this was usu­ally re­flected in their per­for­mance.

No one is laugh­ing at the French these days, how­ever. Now, the best that most clubs can hope for against the con­ti­nen­tal be­he­moths is to fill the sta­dium, avoid a thrash­ing and then look for­ward to the re­turn leg, when the pres­sure will be off and you can en­joy some stinky cheese in peace. Changed days.

Take that! Toulon and Racing in Euro­pean com­bat

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