Postcards from the Top 14
Swapping the Shed for le Aime Giral
September 14, 2012
Former Gloucester favourite Luke Narraway in pre-season action for Perpignan against Zebre © PA Photos
Luke Narraway's transfer to Perpignan in the off-season flew under the radar. His previous side Gloucester saw 10 players leave through the Kingsholm exit door and they were changing their coaching staff. It was a case of out with the old and in with the new. He departed from his beloved Cherry and Whites with more of a whimper than a fanfare.
Narraway is now four games into his Union Sportive Arlequins Perpignanais career and it hasn't been the easiest start on the field with his team losing three of their first four Top 14 clashes - defeats to Toulon, Bordeaux and Clermont Auvergne were probably not what coach Marc Delpoux had had in mind at the start of the season and this weekend things don't exactly get any easier against reigning champions Toulouse in Barcelona's Olympic Stadium.
But he is clearly enjoying life in southern France. "Sorry, I was just out on the sun lounger" was the answer that greeted me after I listened to the monotonous French dialling tone for a while. He is lapping up all the benefits of a change in culture - he had popped over the Spanish border to Girona for the day when we spoke - but this is not a holiday for him.
He's 29 and should be playing the best rugby of his career and if ever there was a reminder that the Top 14 can bring a player out of their shell then it came in the guise of Steffon Armitage who last season, in his first term at Toulon, scooped the Player of the Year award.
While Armitage journeyed to Mourad Boudjellal's side complete with fluent French thanks to his Nice upbringing, Narraway did not have this luxury. Mastering the language and adjusting to the different training methods are some of his immediate priorities - all that will translate to an easier time on the field for the No.8.
"Some aspects of training are very similar and others are completely different," Narraway said. "Usually at home we'd get in early at say 8 or 9 o'clock - do some training and then eat and get out between the hours of 1 and 3 o'clock. But over here they like their lunch and siestas a little bit more. Here we get in at about 9.30 and finish at 11 and get home for about midday. And then you have four hours off for lunch or a siesta and we come back in at 4/4.30 and do a couple of hours in the night. At first this was explained to me as being due to the heat but I think it's more about the siestas.
"So that's taken some adjusting to but I think I've done that - but the language will take longer. It has been difficult to get to grips with it but it was a case of having to jump in with both feet. I've got some French lessons sorted for each week and most Thursdays I end up in the president's suite at the ground getting put through my paces.
"The rugby side of the language came quite quickly as you're always in the midst of it. And then are the priorities such as ordering your bread and your beer! It is slow, but it is a good challenge and keeps things pretty fresh as you always have to engage your mind."
Such is the nature of the current game that when Narraway journeyed to France, he would have followed in the slipstream of some other players making the cross-Channel journey. Ex-Gloucester flanker Alasdair Strokosch had opted to move to the Top 14 side in the close season with Dragons lock Luke Charteris also making the switch. James Hook had already got a year's French league experience under his belt while former Wasps fullback Richard Haughton was recently added as an 'injury joker'.
The brutality of French rugby is well documented and although there were some sympathetic ears in the team when Narraway first rocked up at their training ground, he had to adjust to the pace on the field on his own.
"The Top 14 is definitely different to the Premiership. The sides on average are a lot bigger - we've probably got four or five players in our squad that our over 125-130 kilos. The front fives tend to be a lot bigger but then that equates to more mismatches as the game goes on. It's typically French - one minute it can be a slow game and then next it can change and be the free-flowing running rugby that we've seen from the French in the past. There's no real explanation for it - it's just the way that everyone plays - it's innate. It's certainly entertaining though."
And in regards to "entertainment" there are few experiences in world rugby that can rival Narraway's previous home Kingsholm. The Shed is one of rugby's greatest cauldrons but even he was taken aback the first time he ran out for USAP in front of their home support.
Luke Narraway lifts the Anglo-Welsh Cup at Gloucester © Getty Images
"The Shed produced an incredible atmosphere and it's something that I hold close to myself. But the first game I played at the Aimé Giral was like a football crowd. There was chanting and the noise was all encompassing. The first game against Toulon was absolutely rocking. I had the chance to play in Bordeaux at the football stadium and then went onto Clermont and it was like a Colosseum."
With three starts and a try to his name, Narraway is clearly embracing his fresh start at Perpignan and being able to concentrate solely on his rugby. Although very proud of his role as skipper of the Cherry and Whites, he is now void of the off-field responsibility that comes with such a position and he seems to be relishing that freedom.
"It is difficult going from being captain of a club and having a lot of influence over how things are done on and off the field to a team where you are the new kid at school and you can't even speak the language. I found myself in the first few games trying to say something to the other guys about positions but didn't actually know how and by the time you've worked it out the moment has passed. But I've learnt a few bits and bobs in French and I can now get my point across.
"For me moving to Perpignan is a fresh start and although I loved my time at Gloucester being captain, it is nice, in a weird way, to have none of those responsibilities now. I can now just enjoy my rugby and concentrate on improving."
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Tom Hamilton is the Assistant Editor of ESPNscrum.