FRANCE’S FORGOTTEN FOREIGN LEGION
The world’s best players have graced French club rugby. Some made less noise than others
French rugby has been graced with some of the world’s players in the last 20 years. From the poise and class of Wilkinson, Carter and Giteau to the raw power of Ali Williams and Bakkies Botha, France has always attracted rugby’s finest talent. But there are rugby legends who have had stints in France that you might not remember. Allow us to jog your memory.
A World Cup winning captain in Clermont
John Smit’s career may be an unforgettable one, having been the 50th captain of South Africa and leading them to World Cup glory in 2007, but one would be forgiven for failing to recall his brief spell in Clermont.
The Springbok legend, who made his name at the Sharks, in Durban, has captained the South African national side more than anyone else. In the run-up to the 2007 World Cup, he was heavily linked with a move to Clermont. This came to fruition after the tournament finished, signing a two-year deal with an agreement in place allowing him to remain as captain of South Africa.
His move was highly anticipated, but his spell at the Stade Marcel Michelin was a rather brief and uneventful one. After only one season, Smit rejoined the Sharks, where he stayed until his 2011 move to Saracens.
The Zambian-born Australian legend in Toulon
George Gregan is Australia’s most internationally capped player. The scrumhalf represented his country 139 times in a 13-year spell ending in 2007. He was an integral part of Australia’s 1999 World Cup victory. He also captained his country 59 times.
A legend of the sport whose career will go down in history. But do you remember his short stint at Toulon?
In 2007 Toulon announced that they had signed Gregan and that he would join them after the 2007 World Cup. He would be leaving the Brumbies after 13 years at his boyhood club. Gregan made his debut for a Toulon side, coached by Tana Umaga, in a 41-7 win over Beziers in a French second-division game. He was one of the first big-name signings by owner Mourad Boudjellal.
George Gregan is thought to be a major catalyst in Toulon’s rise to becoming TOP14 champions, despite his time in the south of France only lasting one season before his swansong spell at Suntory Sungoliath in Japan.
Sonny’s secret flight from Australia to France
A World Champion in three different sports, Sonny Bill Williams is one of the most versatile sportsmen of his generation.
Originally making his name as a gifted rugby league player, his move to Toulon in 2008 marked the start of a highly successful rugby union career. His £300,000 move from the Canterbury Roosters was not without controversy. The rugby league outfit were not made aware of his departure until he was already on a plane to the south of France.
At the end of his two-year contract at Toulon, having taken them to a European Challenge Cup final, Williams was offered a $6 million contract to continue in France for another three years. Included in this deal was the possibility of playing international rugby union for France in the 2011 World Cup.
But he rejected the offer, reportedly the largest contract offer in rugby union history, to return to New Zealand with the Crusaders. He had hopes of playing for the All Blacks and went on to play 58 times for his home country and win the World Cup in 2015.
Jonah Lomu’s little-known season for Marseille-Vitrolles 09-10
One the greatest players to have played rugby, Lomu was regarded as the first rugby global superstar, transforming the sport with his power, pace and freakish ability to break tackles.
But did you know at the end of his career, Lomu spent a season with Marseille-Vitrolles?
Playing in the Féderale 1, France’s highest division of amateur rugby, Lomu had one final season of the sport he changed immeasurably. Imagine playing amateur rugby and coming up against a man who scored a record 15 tries in only two World Cup campaigns for the All Blacks and made a career running through some of the best players in World Rugby!
Lomu played seven times for Marseille-Vitrolles before calling time on a stellar career which changed the entire sport of rugby. He died in 2015.
James Haskell’s Paris love affair
He is a household name to many English rugby fans. The former Wasps, England and British and Irish Lions flanker had a career spanning 17 years, followed by a celebrity retirement.
But how well do you remember his stint in the French capital?
In 2009, Haskell joined Stade Français on a two-year deal. He went on to make 48 appearances for Stade Français, scoring seven tries. He was also part of the Stade side who reached the European Challenge Cup final in 2011 but lost narrowly to Harlequins.
His time at Stade Français was overshadowed by the constant chopping and changing of the management team at the Paris club. Three different head coaches in one season disrupted any continuity the team tried to build.
After his two-year spell, Stade Français announced that Haskell would be leaving to return to Wasps to chase a spot in England’s national side.
In an interview upon his return to England, he discussed the passion that fans had for their club, as well as the abundance of natural talent present in the TOP 14 (something we can vouch for).