The Roar
The Roar

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Rugby's forgotten French tourists

James O'Connor has been in Marto's crosshairs. (AAP Image/Dan Peled)
Expert
20th February, 2014
46
2179 Reads

France.
The wine.
The cheese.
La bonne vie.

Those of us who have been lucky enough to grace the grounds of this European gastronomical giant know why it’s the first place we want to go back to.

The rich national culture, unique traditions and the distinctive trappings of the local regions are just some of the reasons that France tops the list of most people’s top holiday destinations.

Being an Australian living in the UK for the past five years, I’ve realised how lucky I was to grow up in a country that had the climate, the ‘outdoor’ lifestyle, and the opportunity to do whatever I chose.

Now don’t get me wrong, I love Britain. I wouldn’t still be trodding round in thermals and playing on ice glazed pitches if I didn’t, but when the sky turns an eerie black, and the sun goes down just as you’re finishing lunch, it’s easy to wish you were anywhere other than here.

Board a plane and cross the English Channel, and in less than an hour this dream becomes a reality. Yes it’s still cold, Yes it’s still dark before six in winter, but everyone, everything, is so… so… French.

It’s why half of Britain owns a property on ‘the continent’, and why millions visit each year, and return home rejuvenated, recharged and replenished, having experienced the French injection.

This lure of the good life is not just confined to pale skinned Brits. One look at the Top 14, arguably the top provincial club rugby competition in Europe, shows this.

Team lists of most of the top clubs reads as a who’s who of past Wallabies, as well as those forgotten young prodigies whose careers promised so much, but for whatever reason, failed to take off in Australia.

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It’s like they all got on a Contiki bus, stopped off in France, then never got back on.

The likes of Brock James at Clermont, Blair Connor at Bordeaux, and Ben Hand at Grenoble are individuals who have benefited from leaving Super Rugby franchises. They have reignited their careers and have been hugely successful in the European game.

And it’s not just Australian stars that are attracted to French rugby either.

Morne Steyn, Bryan Habana, Hosea Gear, Rene Ranger are just a few who are now plying their trade for cashed up clubs, bankrolled by multi-millionaires, who resemble that of those famous clubs who compete in that ‘other’ football code.

It’s easy to see why most critics and fans turn their noses up at those who choose to leave Southern Hemisphere shores for the lucrative contracts and the glamorous lifestyle that Western Europe provides.

However, these people are often the ones who have never experienced Northern Hemisphere rugby, never witnessed the competitiveness of the Six Nations, the brutality of the Heineken Cup and the fact that a player can play up to 30 games in a season, not including international Test matches.

If they had, they’d realise that it’s far more than a nice retirement package and holiday for the likes of Drew Mitchell, Digby Ioane, and Matt Giteau, the latter playing some of his best rugby at Toulon at the tender age of 31, leading to speculation last year that he would link up with the Wallabies on the season ending spring tour.

He has said that he would make himself available for the Wallabies World Cup squad in England next year if interest was shown, and few would argue the wealth that his contribution would bring.

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Given his Test match experience encompassing 92 caps, and more importantly, his recent knowledge of the Northern Hemisphere game, it’s conditions and players, he’d be a vital asset.

The same can be said of James O’Connor, the most recent of the discarded Wallabies and future teammate of Giteau and Mitchell at Toulon, having just signed a one-year contract to join the south France franchise.

Although O’Connor’s departure from Australian rugby was less heralded than that of Giteau’s, taking with him a rap sheet of personal misjudgements and alcohol fuelled incidents, recent form suggests that being away from the spotlight and media attention has done wonders for his game and mindset.

Thrown a lifeline by Brian Smith to join London Irish mid season in the Aviva Premiership, O’Connor has been the shining star in a side that has risen three places in the past month to ensure survival in the top flight.

Playing with the freedom of being away from the pressure and scrutiny that surfaced throughout the past Lions series, he now makes the newspaper headlines for all the right reasons.

The move to Toulon next season, being part of a squad that boasts more international caps per player than any other club in the world, will no doubt enhance his chances of making a return to the Wallabies for their World Cup assault.

Given his age, and only recently being let go by the ARU, his chances are stronger than that of Giteau’s, but ultimately the decision whether or not to include him rests with the man who was at the helm when O’Connor was let go.

We will not know until later this year whether Ewen McKenzie will consider players who play outside the Super Rugby to wear the gold jersey.

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Many reasons and factors point towards why he shouldn’t. Combinations, training camps and first hand monitoring of players, all of which are not possible with those competing overseas.

However, I hope he doesn’t discard the thought of including the likes of O’Connor, or even Giteau, as their contribution, especially in a World Cup where one game can make or break the tournament, could be vital.

Come June next year it will be interesting to see whether the forgotten stars of Australian rugby will be on the pitch helping to ‘bring back Bill’, or on the sofa enjoying a rich red wine and a slice of camembert.

If it is the latter, given their service to Australian rugby over the years, few could argue that they actually deserve it.

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