Ben Cohen glad to be back home
October 28, 2009
Ben Cohen is delighted to be back in the Premiership with Sale © Getty Images
Ben Cohen doesn't pull his punches. In recent months England's World Cup-winning winger has described his two-season sojourn in France with Brive as "irresponsible" and he is overjoyed to be back in the Guinness Premiership with Sale.
Cohen endured a disappointing return to his former club, Northampton Saints, on Saturday but is beginning to rebuild his confidence after a difficult spell in his career.
His candour extends to the club that he left for Brive in 2007, in his own words, "in their hour of need". The Saints are on the march back to the heights seen when Cohen was a fixture at Franklin's Gardens, erasing the memory of their fall in to National One and the dislocation of one of their most famous sons under acrimonious circumstances. Circumstances however, that Cohen will not reveal.
"I walked out on them in their hour of need, for reasons that won't come out as I don't want to slag off a club I love," he told ESPNScrum. "I'm glad to be back. I've got a happy family life now which is better and back in the Premiership which is good. It's all exciting stuff which we didn't have in France. It wasn't for me really. I had a fantastic time in some respects, not to contradict myself, I did things that I'd never get to do otherwise but, I just wanted to get back home."
Having swapped the riches of the Top 14 for Sale and Edgeley Park, Cohen has set about rebuilding his form. At international level he scored 31 tries in 57 Tests and is behind only Rory Underwood in England's all-time list. In France, he scored five tries in two seasons.
Cohen's move pre-empted the 'player-drain' that dominated column-inches last season and he was joined in the south of France by World Cup team-mate Steve Thompson and fly-half Andy Goode. The life didn't sit well with Cohen, or his young family. He watched from the other side of the channel as England's James Haskell, Tom Palmer, Riki Flutey, Tom May, Iain Balshaw and Jonny Wilkinson packed their bags for France, but saw the drawbacks.
"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.
"Having twins that are three months old it puts a lot of pressure on you and your marriage so in that respect I'd probably say no, but if you're young free and single, you're going to a city, I imagine it would be a fantastic opportunity.
"I think people have got to earn a living and with the exchange rate, they pay more. If you've got a family and kids then you've got to put a roof over their heads, as Martin Johnson said, but it's hard for them to see international players over there. It's hard for them to keep an eye on the players in the Premiership, let alone seeing what they're doing overseas. It's hard to get recognised over there but they've got to do what they've got to do."
As a competition the century-old Top 14 draws envious glances from around the globe due to its colour, style and world-class pedigree. Cohen saw a different picture during his time in France and insists that away from the bright lights there was a lot left to be desired outside the upper echelons of the league.
"Outside of the top four or five in the league I think the Premiership is way more physical," he said. "I think it's a better standard of rugby. I'm saying that off the back of Stade coming over here and winning and English clubs losing to French, it's not on the pitch but off the pitch where French rugby really lacks.
"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."
Cohen admits that he was spoiled by the forward-thinking coaching team at Northampton, with whom he lifted the Heineken Cup in 2000. On the international stage as well he bought in to Clive Woodward's England vision and is forthright when it comes to his assessment of their World Cup triumph.
"When I was at Northampton they were ahead of their time off the pitch," he said. "Clive was very forward thinking, they were ahead so far in world rugby. It wasn't a little gap, it was gaping between England and the rest of the world.
"England were by far the best team going in to the World Cup, as favourites. You don't usually see that happen and teams win. I was spoiled by the coaches I'd had, Ian McGeechan, Clive Woodward and Wayne Smith. You're talking about world class coaches and managers; we were a part of something very special there."
His World Cup skipper is now the man making the calls on the international stage. Cohen would dearly love to pull on the white shirt again - his last Test was against South Africa in 2006 - but, that word again, is honest in his assessment.
"I'd love to play for England but it's way down the line, I'm not good enough at the moment. I've got to start playing well for my club before I start thinking about playing for England."
World Cup winner Ben Cohen MBE was at Wembley Stadium for his wildest challenge yet, a unique sprint race against Monty, a 60kg Canadian Timber Wolf to launch the new Timberland Mountain Athletic range. To find out whether Ben was "fast or food" or for more information call 020 7693 6999 or email firstname.lastname@example.org
Huw Baines is the Assistant Editor of ESPNscrum.