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Secret Player: “No one is laughing at the French these days”

Rugby World

This column was first published in the November 2016 issue of Rugby World.

Jan 19, 2017 4:03 AM EST

I’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.

Crowd pleaser: Connacht's John Muldoon celebrates the Pro12 win with fans. Photo: Inpho Rugby World
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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.

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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. But 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.

Jonny Wilkinson and Matt Giteau after Toulon's Top 14 final victory in 2014 Rugby World

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.

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