A twist of fate: From England exile to Toulon
May 17, 2013
Nick Kennedy has found a home from home on the Mediterranean coast with Toulon © Getty Images
Most sportsmen will at some point in their career experience a 'Sliding Doors' moment - a fate-changing incident. For lock Nick Kennedy, his occurred when playing for London Irish during the 2010 Aviva Premiership semi-final against Harlequins.
Although he had already won nine caps for England at that stage, he had just been named in the national squad for that summer's tour to Australia. With Steve Borthwick rested, it gave Kennedy, a lineout operator, a chance to establish himself. But those hopes were dashed at Twickenham when he injured his knee tackling a certain Chris Robshaw.
He missed the tour, and the selectors never called again.
With international recognition off the cards, at the end of the 2011-12 season Kennedy opted for a move to Toulon - had he secured his place in the England side the likelihood is he would still be running out in the Premiership. Reality now sees him starting Saturday's Heineken Cup final for Toulon alongside Springboks legend Bakkies Botha.
Kennedy has had a rollercoaster season. At the start of the campaign he found himself out of the Toulon side, with his belated first appearance coming at openside. Now he is preparing for the biggest match in Toulon's history.
"You could say it was a bit of a slow, start, learning the language and working out what's going on took some time," Kennedy told ESPN. "And it's very competitive here - in the locks there are [Jocelino] Suta, who was in the French squad, Bakkies, one of the best second rows in world rugby, and Simon Shaw who is still playing phenomenally well, he's a real freak of nature. But I am the lucky guy who's holding the jersey at the moment but I imagine there will be more twists and turns as the seasons go on."
It would have been easy for Kennedy to stay at London Irish. His girlfriend still lives in London, while he was based in a lovely leafy suburb of London near Twickenham and was one of the first names on the team sheet for the Exiles. But he felt it was time for a change and Toulon was too good an opportunity to turn down.
"I was getting stale at London Irish. It was a hard season, we were losing games and I needed a change. And also no one had particularly approached me about staying. It was quiet, and as a rugby player you need a team for a job. It's not like you can pick and choose teams you can play for, certain teams want you and others don't. But, luckily for me, Toulon were keen and I was keen to win a trophy before I finish my career and this was the best place for me to achieve this."
Toulon have recently been European rugby's underachievers. Their throng of stars have never produced the goods but this term they are finally poised to delivering millionaire owner Mourad Boudjellal the trophy he so craves. They play Toulouse on Friday for a spot in the Top 14 final, just six days after the Heineken Cup final - win or lose the owner's passion for the club is showing no signs of abating.
Next season will see the likes of Bryan Habana and Drew Mitchell arrive in Toulon and Boudjellal is no stranger to spending big - not satisfied with the back-row options available to coach Bernard Laporte, he drafted in Danie Rossouw and Rocky Elsom midway through this season.
But Toulon is no holiday camp for those who are looking for one final bumper pay day, according to Kennedy. "Everyone wants the same thing here - we want to win trophies and to enjoy our rugby. Danie Rossouw turns up, as does Rocky Elsom, and they buy into the culture that other guys have created here and we all just want to win.
"People on the outside think unfounded thoughts on Toulon - don't get me wrong, we are a big spending club in Europe, but we are not the top spenders in France. We've got a lot of French-qualified players and our academy system is very successful in terms of churning out chaps who play for Toulon. We don't hang around all day in cafes, we work extremely hard and we are motivated, driven individuals who want the same thing."
© Getty Images
Toulon are yet to beat Clermont this season, but it has not been for the want of trying, or a lack of support. The Toulon faithful are among the most passionate in world rugby - despite the embarrassingly low attendance for the semi-final between Toulon and Saracens, those wearing the red and black of RCT did enough to roar on Kennedy and the rest of his team-mates.
When they arrived back at the small Toulon-Hyeres airport at 1am on Monday morning, the players were greeted by hoards of their faithful who had stayed up to welcome their heroes home. Regardless of the riches on offer in France, you can forgive players for wanting to experience that sort of atmosphere week in, week out.
And the vocal battle between the two sets of supporters in the Aviva Stadium on Saturday should be just as ferocious as the one occurring on the field - Toulon's 'Pilou-Pilou' will be up against Clermont's 'Allez allez Montferrandais'.
It is all part of the package that saw Kennedy spurn various advances to return back to England after just one year at Toulon. He is now settled on the Mediterranean coast and - although his lack of international recognition remains a "huge regret" - as long as he is playing in the side and running out in mammoth occasions such as Saturday's then Kennedy's tackle on Robshaw may just have been a blessing in disguise.
"It has been a huge change after 11 years after London Irish," the man himself reflects. "Any sort of move would have been different, but to move to a new culture, language and team has been a big challenge ... but an enjoyable one. I am learning from Suta, Shaw, Botha and it has been a great experience for me.
"But if we win something, the Heineken Cup or Top 14, then it will be the best move I could have made."
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Tom Hamilton is the Assistant Editor of ESPNscrum.