Johnnie Beattie wants France to bring out the animal in him
FRENCH rugby is different, and few moments have convinced Johnnie Beattie of that more dramatically than lunchtime recently at new club Montpellier where he is beginning what he views as the second half of his career as a pro rugby player.
The club’s international full-back Benjamin Thiery is something of a court jester, with a wicked sense of humour, and he introduced Beattie to a monthly ritual where he feeds his pet, housed in a glass case, in the team’s cafeteria. It is a python and no sooner were a couple of large mice put into the case that Thiery’s pet was satisfied, to the whoops and screams of the Scot’s new teammates.
“Utterly bizarre,” Beattie recalled. “There are a few characters at Glasgow, but I don’t remember a feeding time that graphic!”
The Scotland No 8 is acutely aware, however, that he has landed among some ferocious animals on France’s east coast, in a challenging move that many in Scotland will hope could reignite the career of the player who lit up Scotland’s RBS Six Nations campaign in 2010.
Helped by his ‘Higher’ French, Beattie has quickly made friends with Mamuka Gorgodze, the 19-stone Georgian who is one of the most highly-sought players in northern and southern hemisphere, France flankers Remy Martin and Fulgence Ouedraogo, Kiwi Alex Tulou and fellow newcomer Alexandre Bias, who has defied cancer to return to the top level of the game. It is just as well, as they will all become fierce rivals for back row jerseys – coach Fabien Galthie plans to hand Beattie runs at six, seven and eight – in the coming weeks.
The Scots is visibly excited by the challenge. Since that stunning moment in 2010 when he rampaged down Croke Park’s left wing and bounced Paul O’Connell, Geordan Murphy and Gordon D’Arcy off the turf to score in a famous Scotland win, and be hailed as a player of the Six Nations, the Glaswegian has been through a second serious shoulder operation, made a return to action in 2011 Scotland coach Andy Robinson admitted was too swift and then fought in vain for a Warriors jersey while watching the emergence of David Denton at Edinburgh and flanker Kelly Brown as not only a talented No 8 but Test captain-in-waiting.
Given no offer by Glasgow, he looked abroad last December and was delighted when Galthie said that he believed the Scot could thrive at Montpellier, a club that finished fifth in this year’s title chase but who the former France captain hopes to turn into French and Heineken Cup champions inside the next three years.
With the sun beating down and the mercury rising past 35C this week, while rain continued to batter the UK, asking why he had opted for France rather than reportedly lucrative offers from the English Premiership seemed absurd. The climate played a part, he admitted with a smile, but Beattie leaned forward intently to describe how the excitement of challenging himself among European heavyweights provided the greatest pull.
“Sometimes, when you’re not being picked and things aren’t going your way it is difficult to remember that you can play the game,” he began, “because, ultimately, you take confidence from performing well and, if you’re not playing, you can’t do that.
“So, when Fabien told me that when he was coaching Argentina and when he did commentaries for French TV, he singled me out as a danger, you get a lift. I was also given the chance at the end of the season to play for the Barbarians against England and Wales and that was a boost because I was among some of the best players in the world and loved it, and it’s been like that in the first few weeks here. I’ve definitely made a good decision.
“Since I was very young I’ve watched the Heineken Cup and loved the way French teams like Toulouse played, and I’ve come to France on family holidays every year since I was eight, and enjoyed the climate, the culture, the people, the sporting culture especially, so I’ve always hoped that one day I might play rugby here.
“Now, it’s a completely fresh start; a new culture, new playing and training environment, new challenges. I guess it’s like a halfway point in my career. I started when I was 18, I’m now 26, and the next few years I should be in my physical prime, and that is extremely exciting.”
Scotland’s back row riches may never have been stronger, with Denton, Rob Harley, Ryan Wilson, Chris Fusaro, Stuart McInally and Fraser McKenzie leading the push on the established quintet of Brown, John Barclay, Ross Rennie, Alasdair Strokosch and Richie Vernon. So, Robinson may manage fine without Beattie.
But this French move could also prove the opposite. Scotland have produced terrific workers before but to move from being competitive to match-winners, when the heat comes on in Six Nations and World Cup encounters – Scotland’s downfall of the past 20 years – they require experience and what coaches breathlessly describe as ‘the X factor’. Beattie has rare ball skills, backed by uncoachable gallusness. Just ask Irishman O’Connell. Some of the aforementioned Scots may have that too, and Beattie’s difficulty has stemmed largely from him not producing it consistently enough.
But coaches in most sports wrestle with those defence-opening talents, players who see what others don’t, and who perform best when the pressure is at its highest. They are rarely consistent. Beattie is no rugby Messi, let us be clear, but he has qualities that rivals in Scotland would kill for.
The question is whether the Mediterranean coast, a former France scrum-half and a squad including nearly 20 internationalists will revitalise Beattie into a back-rower with the blend of strength, work-rate and flair vital in the modern game. A glance around the Stade Yves du Manoir and training facilities – the club this week laid a new £500,000 pitch grown in Bordeaux – suggests he is giving himself every opportunity, and pre-season games with summer big-spenders, Bayonne, Perpignan and Toulon, will determine where Beattie begins the opening league test at home to Clermont Auvergne.
Having settled into a new life quickly, with his girlfriend Jen similarly happy and preparing to study French at the University of Montpellier, the young Scot’s adrenalin is beginning to flow again.
“I am starting all over,” he added, “earning respect from team-mates, coaches and supporters, but it’s exciting.
“The past year or two haven’t been easy, and there is part of me that wishes I was still at Glasgow with the excitement the boys are feeling about the future there now, but it’s time for new challenges, being exposed to different ideas, different grounds, crazy fan bases, new pressure and expectation – and different animals!
“Of course Scotland’s important to me, but at the forefront of my mind now is Montpellier. When Fabien said ‘if I coach you the way I want to, and you play the way I think you can, you’ll be back in the Scotland team in no time’ I was pleased that he shared my ambition. But, the priority is simply playing for Montpellier, and playing well again.”
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Saturday 25 May 2013
Temperature: 6 C to 17 C
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Temperature: 9 C to 16 C
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