An Englishman Abroad
What life is really like at Toulon
January 17, 2014
Tom May in action for Toulon back in 2011 © Getty Images
Moving from Newcastle at the end of June 2009 was a big decision. I had created a life in the North-East and it had become my home. Sometimes opportunities pop up that take you out of your comfort zone, challenging you and offering perspective changing experiences. Moving to Toulon was just that opportunity for me.
I heard about a possible move to France while on holiday. "Would you be interested in playing in Toulon?" 'Where?' I said. I genuinely had no idea where Toulon was, what it was like or who the team was. I spoke to family, asking them to find out where it was. Once I found out I couldn't believe it.
Toulon itself isn't the most glamorous of places when compared to classical French towns, but nestled along the Cote d'Azur, the surrounding areas are simply amazing with the Mediterranean meters from you most of the time.
Over time, Toulon has positioned itself as a place of glitz and glamour with 'Galacticos' arriving from far away shores. Rugby has put the town on the world radar with Stade Felix Mayol the focal point for thousands of passionate and seemingly delirious supporters who turn up every weekend to the Port where the stadium sits, perched on the edge of the sea.
It all sounds so nice and friendly but far from it. Stade Mayol is a concrete bully, intimidating teams and players from across France and Europe. Arriving teams pass through thousands of 'Les Toulonnais' who are baying for opposition blood whilst screaming deliriously for their home team.
Toulon is in this all together; as a player you come to understand this. That is, as long as things are going well for the team.
The passion turns to pressure when things aren't going to plan. Toulon supporters don't mix their actions or words. During a period of underperformance, a simple visit to the supermarket would sometimes become unpleasant with people telling you that you need to perform better or finding ways to make the message even clearer for you. I remember some lads being sponsored scooters by a local garage, scooters covered from front to back in club logos and emblems which was all very good when things are rosy.
But it was not so clever when you nip down the road for some milk when you have just lost. Some of the guys were having their scooters tipped over while they were parked up. It's not something you would see happening in Bath.
Leader of this burning passion is the club president, Mourad Boujedllal; a successful guy who ran his own comic publishing company and someone most rugby fans have heard of.
At the time, I didn't understand him and the way he worked, he really frustrated me and at times I couldn't work out what he was doing. He was a real show man. He would appear in the changing room, singing and dancing in front of the cameras.
The drama that follows him to the untrained eye seems at times petulant and it did to me whilst I was a player. Stepping away from Toulon, I now get it and fair play to him. He has created his own PR machine which has allowed him to generate commercial interest in Toulon - he doesn't have to spend a single Euro on the team (according to him) and they are up to 31 million Euros in their budget.
However, some of the PR has an effect on the team in my opinion and performances at times this season might support that argument. I don't care if you play for your local club or you play for Toulon in the Heineken Cup, once you start hearing rumors of the imminent arrival of someone else in your position it has an effect no matter how much of a team man you are. I am all behind the idea that you buy into the team and the need for a strong squad but that doesn't mean you don't look over your shoulder when new names are banded about and it's not often that names aren't linked with Toulon.
Playing for Toulon in the Top 14 and in Europe is something I am very proud to have done. I had moved from Newcastle, where I had played many games, into a side which was largely made up of Philippe Saint Andre's recruits, many of whom had just arrived. My comfort zone had gone. Ways of life, style of rugby, ways to train and language were very different and all needed addressing from a personal point of view. But I found this something I really enjoyed. It's great to have had that opportunity, there were so many things to be grateful and there weren't many drawbacks.
Don't get me wrong, life on the Cote d'Azur was as attractive as you would think. Sun most days of the year, amazing places to see and visit, a new culture to adapt and buy into. Life is as stimulating as it can get from that point of view, for me it was anyway.
© Getty Images
I know it doesn't work out for everyone though and I can see why. It's absolutely key for players from the UK to adapt to the pace and flow of life in France. Life is relaxed and calm away from the club and if you are used to something else then it might not work down in Toulon. For players that move to France, it's important to understand what the area is like and if you are able to cope with that.
So much is made of the players over there. They are looked after in a way I had certainly never experienced before. So much of life is catered for at the club and away from it that it is relatively easy for them to settle in. I think it's much harder for families - thrown together as a big group, new players are in it together, bouncing concerns and problems off each other. Wives, girlfriends and children don't have that luxury of the immediate bond of playing within a team. There is a sense of isolation for them which can be harder to overcome than any problems players may face and it can put pressure on relationships at times. Clubs need to be mindful of this as so many guys are changing so much of their normality not just for themselves but for their families too.
Squad size and playing opportunities can also be an issue. In my situation, with the likes of Sonny Bill Williams, Gaby Lovabolavu and even Tana Umaga putting his boots on sometimes, I knew that if I didn't perform as well as I could then I could find it very hard to get good game time. My first season gave me some good playing opportunities and to play in a European final alongside Tana, Jonny Wilkinson and Sonny Bill in the same game is something to tell the grandkids one day!
My second season didn't go as I would have wanted it with very few chances to play. It was frustrating, but it allowed me to really develop other areas around my game that I had never needed to before. Mental toughness, perspective on what this job really was and how lucky I was as a player all became real focuses for me and I'm certainly much stronger from the experience.
French life is good and I fully understand why players are looking for opportunities to play there. I don't understand when I hear people being derogatory about those who have made or are making that choice. Life offers so much out in France and not just from a rugby perspective. For the majority of time it is something to savor but, like most things, it has pitfalls that need to be taken in your stride.
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