Wouldn’t it be great to live in a city where people live and breathe rugby?
All around Australia rugby competes for attention with three other football codes as well as basketball, golf and a plethora of other sports.
In France there are parts of the country where rugby rules. Think Toulouse, La Rochelle, Perpignan and Clermont-Ferrand. In these cities the sport stands alone atop the sports hierarchy.
Packed stadiums urge their beloved sides on every second Saturday. The paper’s back pages scrutinise the team, its players and every result. Locals chatter about rugby at cafes over coffee and a croissant. Schoolkids mimic their local heroes in the playgrounds.
Pau is another such city. Its pride and joy are Section Paloise who compete in France’s Top 14 competition.
Former Wallaby Jesse Mogg has been with Section for the past two seasons. He has witnessed firsthand the very strong connection between the people of Pau and their rugby team.
“Rugby is basically their life here,” he says. “It’s a really great experience to come and play or watch a game here. There’s a real buzz around town if the team’s winning.”
As is the case with most French teams, getting results at home is a must. Mogg has keenly felt the change in temperature at Stade du Hameau when Section aren’t slicing the mustard.
“Obviously if you’re winning, everything is great. But if you’re losing, they’ll most likely let you know that you need to do better,” he says.
Whether cheering or jeering, Section supporters typically show up in good numbers to home fixtures. The team routinely log crowds of over 10,000 from a city of around 80,000 inhabitants.
Perhaps the increased scrutiny is why Mogg prefers to base himself distal to Pau and its enthusiastic citizens. Though it is more likely because he enjoys living among some stunning southern French scenery.
“I live in the countryside in the mountains overlooking the Pyrenees,” he says. “We’re just coming through spring here at the moment and everything is green.
“It rains a lot here. There’s no shortage of water, that’s for sure! I assume the team’s green and white colours are based on that sort of stuff.”
Mogg here is referring to Section’s playing kit. The green representing the verdant splendours of the local landscape, while the white symbolises the snow that seasonally blankets it.
Section Paloise is one of France’s oldest established clubs. They were founded in 1902 and have won three French titles in their lifetime, the last of which came in 1964.
Their history goes back much further than the team where Mogg first made his name – the Brumbies, for whom the Queensland-born back played from 2012 until 2015.
Mogg was first spotted by Brumbies head coach Jake White playing club rugby for Wests in 2011. A year later he got his first taste of Super Rugby, which he took with more than a dollop of relish.
Mogg’s blinding speed and thunderbolt kicks off his left peg enabled him to quickly establish himself as a starter with the Brumbies. He wound up playing 60 games and scoring 20 tries over four seasons with the ACT side.
He also parlayed his provincial form into a brief stint in the international arena. Mogg played three times for the Wallabies over a two-month span in 2013.
Surgery to an injured shoulder kept him from playing in Aussie gold for the remainder of that season. By the time he made it back on the park the following year, Israel Folau had pretty much cemented his spot as Australian fullback. A change in Wallabies management in late 2014 also seemed an unfavourable development for Mogg.
“(Michael) Cheika had obviously got Folau over to rugby and he was now national coach,” he says. “When Ewen (McKenzie) was there I was able to install myself in the 15 jersey and they moved Folau to the wing.”
Cheika did not select Mogg for Australia’s 2014 end-of-season European tour. Getting snubbed less than a year out from the World Cup led him to believe he was “long odds” of getting a recall.
His future with the Brumbies also appeared uncertain. Mogg was off contract at the end of the 2015 season, and initial talks of a renewal ended up stalling.
“I was in negotiations with the Brumbies and I wanted to stay,” he says. “I waited for an offer but they didn’t end up making me one. It then started to get on my mind a bit.
“An offer came through from Montpellier, where Jake had just been named coach. Ben Mowen was there, and Whitey (Nic White) had also just signed with them. I weighed it all up.
“The reality was that I had been out of the Wallabies for a year and half then. It was more of a political decision, I guess.
“I knew that even If I’d consistently played the best that I’ve ever played – the fact that I didn’t know the coach at the time and he didn’t know me probably was the main contributing factor.”
So Mogg set sail for Montpellier. He would waste little time making an impact with his new side, scoring a try on debut in a winning effort. This was a case of lightning striking twice for Mogg, who had also touched down in his maiden game for the Brumbies.
It would be the harbinger of a very fruitful stint at Montpellier. The club captured its first-ever piece of major silverware in the Aussie speedster’s first season there.
This came through victory in the 2016 European Challenge Cup final. Mogg played no small part in that triumph, bagging both of Montpellier’s tries as they prevailed 26-19 over Harlequins.
Things were also clicking domestically. Montpellier made it to the Top 14 finals in each of Mogg’s three seasons with the team.
The 2017-18 season looked as if it may be the year when they finally broke through and won a Top 14 title. Montpellier topped the regular-season table before coasting through the play-offs en route to the final. Unfortunately they fell short at the final hurdle to underdogs Castres.
This would be Mogg’s final appearance for Montpellier. With contracts for foreigners being cut back at the club, he was one of the odd ones out.
Then Pau came calling. With a chance to keep his French dream alive, Mogg signed a three-year deal with Section prior to the 2018-19 campaign.
This time he would make his new team wait before scoring his first try. But only until Game 2, and it was vintage Mogg. A left-foot step, a narrow channel, and bang! Mogg shot through the gap and sprinted 50 metres nearly untouched to score.
Watching that try you would not think that he was hampered by a lower leg injury.
It turns out he was just hiding it very well. Mogg originally felt a niggle in the preseason but would play through discomfort for ten regular-season games before finally succumbing to it.
It would turn into a whopper. Mogg has now had three surgeries on his troubled right tibia keeping him off the pitch for the past 18 months.
The final operation was last November. After recuperating, Mogg has now been able to run more and more rigorously over the past two months. He insists that his leg is now feeling the best that it has in two years.
He hopes to be fit and ready to play whenever competitive rugby recommences in France. The 2020-21 campaign will be Mogg’s final contracted season with Section Paloise.
After such an extended absence, merely getting back on the pitch is Mogg’s number one goal. If he can return to optimal conditioning and match play, a move back to his homeland could be in the pipeline beyond next season.
“A short-term goal is to just get back to playing rugby where hopefully I can do something with Pau,” he says.
“I spoke to my agent a few times about future options. I’d love to come back (to Australia) at some point, I think.
“I’m not too sure if that’s a possibility or not. It depends on how I’m playing, how the body’s going et cetera. After that we’ll see. I certainly haven’t said no to it.
“I definitely have something there wanting to come back. Whitey is always in my ear about doing it as well.”
Despite injury curtailing the past season and a half, Mogg has still accumulated 70 games and gained much experience in his five years in France. Exposure to different styles of game as well as players of diverse backgrounds has been of huge benefit to his development as a player.
“I think that I’m a far better, and more well-rounded, player over here than what I was at home,” he says. “Managing games is something that I’ve learnt a lot about.
“You get to play with a lot of internationals here in France. Not just three or four-cap internationals but guys with 50, 60 caps from all different countries – New Zealand, South Africa, Georgia, Fiji.
“You learn a lot of things from a lot of other people and how they play the game. I’m definitely better off these days because of that.”
An improved and injury-free Jesse Mogg returning to the fast decks of Australia would be a very nice addition indeed. Any potential of that, though, will have to wait at least another 12 months.
As for now, it’s all about getting back to business with Section where he has not been sighted by the team’s fanatics since 2018.
Although not seen, you can count on Mogg being far from forgotten. Not in rugby-mad Pau.
Jesse Mogg’s CV
Also represented: Queensland A, Canberra Vikings (NRC), North Brisbane (Queensland Premier League), Wests (ACTRU), Brisbane Broncos (Toyota Cup).