The French connection
January 27, 2011
Stephen Jones enjoyed two years in France with Montferrand © Getty Images
Wales playmaker James Hook will trade the Ospreys for Perpignan at the end of the season and with him in mind we've taken a look at some more Channel-hoppers in our latest Scrum Seven.
Stephen Jones - Montferrand
Perhaps the model for Hook's move across the channel is Jones' two-season stint in the Top 14 with Montferrand, now Clermont Auvergne. A local hero with Llanelli, the fly-half upped sticks for the Massif Central in 2004. While in France he was voted as the Championship's leading fly-half and also saw his game lift to new heights at international level. In 2005 he spearheaded Wales' first Grand Slam in 27 years and subsequently won Test caps for the British & Irish Lions in New Zealand. He left Clermont in 2006 for a return to the Scarlets, helping to mentor an impressive array of young talent at the West Wales region.
Jonny Wilkinson - Toulon
The poster boy for the south of France lifestyle, Wilkinson has not looked back since trading the frosty climes of England's north east for the sun of Toulon. Backed by comic book magnate Mourad Boudjellal, the club has become a haven for high-profile signings and the capture of Wilkinson was their pièce de résistance. With a relatively injury-free stint, by his previous standards, Wilkinson has rediscovered form not too far removed from that shown in England's march to the World Cup, and shorn of some of the playmaking burden has offered glimpses of an enterprising attacking game based on quick feet and his trademark physical edge. While his international star may be waning, his new two-year deal to remain in France shows that he is very much still the man for his adopted club.
Nathan Hines - Perpignan
Everyone's favourite Wagga Wagga-born Scotsman, the burly second-rower traded Edinburgh for Perpignan in 2005 while also ruling himself out of contention for Scotland honours following Matt Williams' troubled reign at the helm of the national side. The graft of the French league agreed with him and he rose in stature to become one of British rugby's most respected locks. After agreeing to don a Scotland jersey again under Frank Hadden, won selection for the Lions for their 2009 tour to South Africa. To take his place among the squad he ditched Perpignan however, prior to their appearance in the Top 14 play-offs. "I have a torn heart but what can I do?" he said. "If I am not in London on May 18 I will not be selected (by the Lions). Last year I was a substitute for Perpignan in the play-off semi-final. Imagine if I were to refuse the Lions and the same thing happened to me? No, that isn't possible."
Steve Thompson - Brive
Thompson's redemptive tale of overcoming a career-ending injury and repaying a substantial insurance payment to rekindle his career has become well known since his return to the England fold. His second chance came with Brive, where he was joined by a burgeoning international contingent as his fellow England internationals Jamie Noon, Andy Goode, Shaun Perry and Riki Flutey were accompanied by Welshmen Alix Popham and Barry Davies. Thompson vowed that he would again be considered as England's premier hooker and with a newly slimmed-down physique in tow he set about proving it. A quick, forthright chat with Martin Johnson ("Do you think you will be good enough to play for England again?"/"Yes, definitely. You wait and see."/"Then you'll be in with a chance.") preceded his Test return against Argentina in 2009 - three years after his last cap. He has since returned to England with Leeds.
James Haskell - Stade Francais
The media furore that accompanied Haskell's Wasps exit in 2009 - when he was joined in leaving by Riki Flutey and Tom Palmer - escalated so quickly that you could have been forgiven for thinking that the sky was suddenly going to cave in over the home counties. The England flanker's move to Paris has brought, by his own admission, a great deal of personal fulfilment and also a consistently high level of performance for Stade Francais. Unfortunately, his time in France has also been blighted by release battles between England and his club, with Stade president Max Guazzini not helping the situation by labelling him a 'hostage' during the 2010 Six Nations. Still, with sidekick Ollie Phillips in tow, it appears that Haskell could be willing to chance his arm with a prolonged stay in the Top 14 post World Cup and England's 'ban' on selecting overseas players.
Gregor Townsend - Brive/Castres
One of Scotland's greatest talents and an admirable free spirit, Townsend was the opposite of a 'one club' man. While he fought for the retention of Borders as the third Scottish professional side in the latter stages of his career, the fly-half enjoyed two spells in France. His contracts at Brive and Castres were sandwiched between stints with Northampton, Borders and Natal Sharks, for whom he played Super Rugby in 2004. During his time in France he helped Scotland to the last Five Nations title and currently serves as attack coach in Andy Robinson's blossoming national setup.
Ben Cohen - Brive
After an acrimonious departure from long-time club Northampton in 2007, Cohen joined Brive's ex-pat community. The World Cup-winning England wing did not take to his new surroundings however and after a short, unfulfilling stay he returned to the Premiership with Sale Sharks. "I don't think I could ever recommend it," he said. "What I got out of it could be very different to what other people would get out of it. I did things I never thought I'd get to do in rugby and in that respect it was very challenging. Individual players are very talented, probably more talented than in England, but they just aren't that professional. Brive went from 0-100 miles per hour very quickly; it was good to bring them in to modern times but some of the things that they're doing are ancient. They don't give themselves a chance really. You felt frustrated over there."
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