Scottish interest has already been piqued by the signings of Richie Gray and Jim Hamilton, off to Castres Olympique and Montpellier respectively, but there is one Scot who has climbed into the league almost unnoticed. Former Edinburgh flanker Scott Newlands is set to play in France’s top flight with Oyonnax after their near domination of the ProD2 last term and he cannot wait to mix it with the big boys.
“For a lot of the young guys in our squad next season will seem daunting,” Newlands said after arriving home in Kelso, having made the trip across the Channel for fellow Borderer Greig Laidlaw’s wedding. “I’ve been lucky to play in the Heineken Cup against some big teams, but being there [in the Top 14] is less than half the job. It is about staying there and beating teams with higher attendances and bigger squads.”
It has been no Alpine picnic for the Scotland A cap. After he parted ways with Edinburgh two years ago, he was faced with a bold choice. Move down to England or risk it and head to France.
He describes the transfer market as a difficult place to be, with so many players and teams haggling for favourable deals. He had always wanted to go to France and, with the blessing of long-term partner, Joanna, headed for the continent.
He said: “At the time the move felt like a big step but we settled quickly, made lots of friends and picked up some of the language.”
Newlands is now confident enough with his French to coach Oyonnax’s U18 side next term.
He added: “I enjoyed the team spirit and being part of a smaller club. We finished eighth in my first season, dying away because we didn’t have the depth of squad to play 30 games. Our coach was ambitious, though, and we signed some front-five players for the next season. In France you need a strong scrum that works from week to week and through the winter. We targeted the Top 14 and now we are taking on the best.”
Known for his selflessness, the blindside states that his ambition is simply for the town to make the most of their chance. He likens the love of rugby in the hardworking, industrial area to that of a Borders town. He chuckles as he describes how locals gatecrash training, huddling round the scrummaging machine and shouting the forwards on.
The fear is that Oyonnax cannot cope. They thrived last year based on the togetherness of their squad, besting the likes of Lyon, who relied on flashy but disinterested stars like Sebastien Chabal. However, if they look at the two promoted sides the season before, Grenoble impressed by finishing 11th, while Scott Murray’s Mont-de-Marsan ended up rock bottom.
Unity will be the key to emulating Grenoble according to Newlands, who said: “I’ve seen teams who have individuals who didn’t buy in. Without the team you are nothing, or at least that’s my rugby philosophy. Toulon? Not everyone has the budget to do that. You need constancy and you need people to be reliable.”
How reliable Oyonnax are will be evident when the first two games are played out, with the team travelling to Bayonne before welcoming the megastars of Clermont Auvergne to their little stadium in the mountains. A lot of investment and rebuilding has gone in to get to this stage and Newlands admits there is nothing to lose for himself or the town.
After all a career is short. He jumped towards a French adventure sooner than he had planned and it has paid dividends. He would like to stay on the continent as he moves into coaching in the future but he knows nothing is certain. He has moved before for work and, like Simon Cross who is now at Worcester Warriors, Newlands will not moan about lack of opportunities at home.
He will just keep climbing.