BEFORE I start quizzing Steffon Elvis Armitage on rugby matters there is one itch I have to scratch. Please tell me, I say on the phone to Toulon, that your dad was a huge fan of the undisputed King of Rock and Roll and named you after the great messiah of Memphis?
“No,” Armitage corrects me, “my mum was a huge fan and named me after Elvis Presley. I have been trying to keep that one under the radar to be honest. I do sing along to a few of his hits on the Karaoke machine but I wouldn’t say that I am a big fan.”
Armitage is the middle of five rugby-playing brothers, Bevon and Delon are older, Guy and Joel younger. His step-dad is English while his Elvis-mad mother hails from Trinidad and Tobago. His childhood was split between England and five years in the South of France when his step-dad’s work took him to Nice. Despite the European upbringing, Steffon retains something of the West Indian’s relaxed attitude to life, at least off the field. I am supposed to call at 10.15am, he picks up the phone in the early afternoon.
Perhaps he is just too busy, because the barrel-chested flanker is suddenly flavour of the month, in demand on account of his superlative Heinken Cup quarter-final display against Leinster that won him a man of the match award and this accolade from Martyn Williams: “That was as good a back row performance as you will see”.
It was certainly good enough to see off Leinster and earn Toulon a semi-final clash with Munster which will take place in Marseille’s Stade Velodrome this afternoon.
In a world of robotic, off-the-peg players, Armitage offers something dramatically different. He’s a hard-hitting flanker with a centre’s turn of pace and a hand-off that would be considered a lethal weapon in any other walk of life. With a low-slung chassis he operates close to the ground, which has helped the flanker top the Heineken turnover stats and the short Englishman appeared last week on the long-list for the European player of the year award for which he must be a short-odds favourite. He is fast turning into Toulon’s good luck charm. No great surprise then that the English press has been clamouring for Stuart Lancaster to break the RFU’s rule about not selecting foreign-based players. The big boss man flew to Toulon last Monday to meet the Armitage brothers which must have left them begging him for a little less conversation, a little more action please.
“Stuart Lancaster flew over on Monday to talk to me and my brother and explain what people already know,” explains Steffon. “He isn’t going to pick foreign-based players. But, if I want to come back to England, then I’d be considered. It was just the stuff that everyone has been writing about. He just wanted to set the record straight and do it face to face rather than via the papers.”
Meanwhile, every pundit with a platform has questioned the RFU’s “no exiles” rule which, were it lifted tomorrow, would witness half the England team queuing for the first cross-channel ferry come Tuesday morning. There is one small glimmer of hope, one clink of light and it rests in the small print. Under “exceptional circumstances” Lancaster has the authority to select an exile. So should skipper Chris Robshaw break a leg one week ahead of next year’s World Cup, Armitage might come into contention. Until or unless that happens he’ll be booking into heartbreak hotel.
It is the paradox at the heart of the little flanker that he expresses an overriding desire to play for England even as he extends his sojourn in France. It’s a circle that no amount of agonising will square. At one point, Armitage insists that, instead of his Test debut for England, the highlight of his career to date was winning the Heineken Cup with Toulon last season. Suspicious minds might argue that he has made his lucrative bed – his salary won’t be a kick in the pants off ¤420,000 – and now the exile must lie in it.
“When I first came over here [from London Irish] I felt that I had just had the best two years of my career and I never got a look in [for the England squad, under Martin Johnson] so it was time to try something new,” he argues. “I did get into the England squad, I was in the training squad and I was on the bench and I did win five caps but it was five caps over two years.
“There were a few recent offers to come back to England but I asked myself, ‘am I the best player that I can be?’ And the answer is ‘no, I don’t think so’. The Top 14 and Toulon is so competitive because they are always bringing in new players and the wages are such that if the French clubs want a player then they go out and get him. The competition is what drives me to improve.
“There are stars all over the place but there are no egos at the club and for the same reason... you are only one or two bad games away from being replaced. Look at guys like Victor Matfield and George Gregan, who were here for just one year and then they left. I have made my decision and I will live with it.
“Anyone who says that I am only here for the money just doesn’t know me. I am here purely because I want to be the best player I can be and this is the place where I can do it. Look at who I am learning from,” and he reels off a list of the great and the greater in the Toulon squad, Chris Masoe, Juan Smith and Juan Martin Fernandez Lobbe amongst them.
As for today’s match, Toulon will start as favourites to overpower a very useful Munster pack but one that will be conceding muscle, nous and experience in almost every position. Armitage has a proper respect for the Irish giants, having been on the wrong end of shellacking in Thomond Park whilst sporting London Irish colours so he insists that he wasn’t particularly surprised when they put six tries past Toulouse in the quarter-final. As for homework, he hasn’t done that much.
“We’ve not really looked at Munster yet and what they do,” claims Armitage. “We prefer to concentrate on what we’ve done wrong and can improve upon. As our coaches always say, it’s all about what we do. We have to dictate what takes place on the pitch so it doesn’t matter what the opposition does. It’s all about us. This is a one-off game now and anything could happen. Whoever wants it the most is going to get it.”
The same cannot be said about Armitage’s burning desire to add to his collection of England caps, where desire and his undoubted ability are trumped by geography and regulations. His current Toulon contract takes him to 2017 when he will be 31. Might he then consider a return home?
“I’d never say never,” he says. “I think I have more to offer, flankers carry on playing for a while and, hopefully, I’ll still have something to offer at 31.”
Elvis Presley once belted out the hit, “If I Can Dream”. It seems the only option currently available to his namesake in Toulon.