French leave: The Scots who’ve formed a thriving colony across the Channel
BACK in 1999 the Scotland team which won the old Five Nations put on such a show of running rugby in Paris that several French clubs immediately reached for their chequebooks and signed them almost as they walked off the field.
The likes of Glenn Metcalfe, Gregor Townsend, Shaun Longstaff and Stuart Reid all headed across the Channel and veteran lock Scott Murray is still there now, doing his stuff for Mont de Marsan, the whipping boys of the Top 14.
Fast forward to the present and, once again, there is a sizeable contingent of Scots to be found amongst the huge foreign legion of players in France. Not quite enough to dub it a mass exodus but enough to fill a minibus and raise the question why?
Craig Smith, Nathan Hines and Murray are unlikely to consume too much of Andy Robinson’s time and attention but the Scotland coach will be keeping close tabs on Euan Murray (Agen), Mark Bennett (Clermont), Johnnie Beattie (Montpellier), Alasdair Strokosch (Perpignan), Max Evans (Castres) and, of course, Scotland’s most capped scrum-half, Mike Blair. He has joined Brive, one of just two teams to have lifted the Heineken Cup without ever winning their domestic league (Chapeau to anyone who remembers the other club, named at the end of this article).
After much speculation and rumour throughout the summer Blair has fetched up in France’s second division. The ProD2 has a reputation as old school, a tough-as-boots training ground, rugby’s equivalent of the Wild West saloon where strangers walk in the door and fly back out the window, with ordinary officials and a lot fewer television cameras than the Top 14 to scrutinise rugby’s dark arts. Blair is currently nursing an injured shoulder and, after making his debut off the bench against Beziers a few weeks back, the scrum-half is in no mood to argue.
“In my very first game there were a total of nine cards shown, six yellow and three red, and only one of them was for something other than violence,” says Blair with a mixture of shock and something like admiration. “Our skipper was sent off first along with their lock and there was a ten-a-side mass brawl. It was crazy! I was sitting on the substitutes’ bench beside [England international] Jamie Noon and we just looked at each other without saying a word. I am pleased to say that things have calmed down a little since then.”
Blair and his family, wife Viv and son Rory, rent a five-bedroom mansion in the countryside just outside Brive – “for peanuts” he says. Already it is proving a popular holiday destination for friends and family.
After spending his entire rugby life, man and boy, in Edinburgh, Blair moved to France aged 31 but he insists that the motivation went way beyond the financial clout of French clubs who have no salary cap to trouble them.
“Some clubs in the Top 14 may be in a position to splash the cash but, for me, the money wasn’t part of the equation,” Blair insists. “Viv and I have always wanted to go to France, for the lifestyle more than anything. My son Rory has had his first day at a French school and Viv is expecting again in October so we will have a little French baby!
“I think that, after 13 years at the same school [Edinburgh Academy] and 11 years at the same club [Edinburgh Rugby], I probably needed to get out of my comfort zone and find some fresh challenges.
“I think all the Scots in France will have moved here for different reasons and one of the reasons I chose Brive is because I didn’t know anyone here. I have to learn French because I don’t want to be one of those players that only speaks to the English-speaking players. Anyway, all our meetings are done in French so I have no choice, although I struggle to contribute much to a social conversation simply because everyone speaks so fast.”
Blair’s followers on Twitter will already have heard about the problems of learning a new language as the scrum-half admitted so some early embarrassment. He asked to swap benches with a French player in the medical room who thought he wanted to swap wives. Blair then explained that his missus was pregnant but ended up claiming instead that his wife was a “cougar”.
For all the communication difficulties with his new colleagues, Blair has kept talking to Andy Robinson because he has high hopes of adding to his tally of 83 international appearances. He has had assurances from Robinson that the move to second division rugby won’t hurt him, as has one of his rivals for the No.9 jersey, Rory Lawson, who turns out in England’s Championship for Newcastle. The unfortunate Chris Cusiter of Glasgow Warriors will miss the autumn schedule altogether with a shoulder injury.
“Andy has no issues with me playing in division two,” says Blair. “I am only 31 years old and look at the heroics that Rodrigo Roncero managed for the Pumas recently and he is 35. He was sensational so I’d like to think I’ve got a few years left in me.
“I was very happy with my form on the summer tour, it was the most enjoyable tour both on and off the field I have ever been involved in. I didn’t feel old except perhaps when Hoggy [Stuart Hogg] said he was born in 1992! I think people expect me to retire simply because I have been around for over a decade now.”
Blair, whose first cap was against Canada in 2002, added: “Perhaps if I’d only arrived on the international scene at the age of 26 or 27 no one would be talking about retirement. I am going to retire when I feel that I can’t play at the highest level of international rugby any more.”
For now, any talk of stepping down seems premature and the move to France could provide the motivation that Blair needs to enjoy an Indian summer in his career. He’s certainly enjoyed the French summer and recently reported training in 30-degree heat.
For Strokosch, the move to France was also as much about lifestyle as rugby and, after a sticky start at Perpignan, the flanker is flying. The club opened the season with three straight defeats but have recovered to win their last two matches including a bonus-point victory over Toulouse in which the Scot scored a vital try.
“There is a lot to adjust to,” says Strokosch, who impressed everyone on the recent tour of the Pacific. “I won’t deny that the money in France is good but we wanted to experience the lifestyle too. I’ve played in the Magners League, as it was, the English Premier League and now the Top 14, so I have tried all the main leagues in Europe, a full house if you like.
“Perpignan is a lot like Gloucester in many ways in that the Catalan club has a big working-class support that is very passionate. They tend to be a little bit more aggressive than some other clubs, which suits my style.
“The language is the only real hurdle but I can already understand a lot of what is said, it’s just trying to speak French that will take time.”
The money is good, the weather is warm, the rugby is competitive, the accommodation is cheap and the lifestyle is the envy of all. Instead of asking why so many Scots play in France perhaps we should ask why more don’t cross the Channel?
• Answer: Northampton Saints lifted the Heineken Cup in 2000 but have never won the English domestic league.
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