Andy Cramond fetched up on the Cote d’Azur a bundle of nerves, convinced that the most storied club in Europe had made some terrible mistake.
Could Toulon, with all of their champions and riches and Galacticos, seriously want to sign a little-known kid from Scotland? Was he, a 20-year-old lock, really to be welcomed into this lair of titans? On that day, Cramond half-expected Mourad Boudjellal to come marching down from his gilded office and send him back to Edinburgh like an ill-fitting ASOS order.
“My first morning, I was going in for breakfast and thinking, are they sure it’s me they wanted to sign? They’re not mistaken? I honestly couldn’t believe it,” Cramond tells RugbyPass.
“I’d got a message through on Facebook after playing for Scotland Under-20s. It was from a guy saying he was a French agent. I thought it was a piss-take, someone pulling my leg, so I didn’t reply instantly. I put his name into Google and realised he was actually a rugby agent in France. He said four or five clubs were looking for a second-row, and one of them was Toulon. I just told him: get me there.
“That first morning, I was sat there with Chris Masoe, Carl Hayman and Ali Williams having breakfast. They were just normal blokes, like most rugby players are. And in France, the foreigners look out for each other, so I got looked after very well by all of those guys, particularly Steffon Armitage, who I’ve followed to Pau and now Biarritz.”
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Cramond has been in France ever since, nearly seven years spent merrily hopping from Toulon to Pau, then three seasons with Vannes in the ProD2, and as of last summer, their promotion rivals Biarritz. He has struck up a great friendship with Johnnie Beattie, the former Scotland number eight who lives a few miles down the southwest coast, and has recently bought a house he is now renovating. In all, a month short of his 27th birthday, Cramond is thoroughly content with his lot.
And why wouldn’t he be? As a player, he has made himself in France, been exposed to things none of his contemporaries have tasted. He was tutored by the giants of Toulon, then thrust into the brutality and bonkerdom of a ferociously competitive second tier.
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“When I moved on loan to Pau, I lived with Steffon and his wife for a few months – I joke that they’re my French mum and dad,” Cramond says.
“At Toulon, Juan Fernandez Lobbe was, not harsh, but wouldn’t mess around, he’d call you out, which is a good thing. I do remember a pre-season game against Stade Francais, one line-out I never lifted him and he turned round and bollocked me. The next one, I jumped and would have had the ball, but he never lifted me. Well, I thought, I can’t really scream at Juan Fernandez Lobbe.
“All these guys were coming to the end of their careers. You enjoyed yourself around the boys, had a few beers together, didn’t take things too seriously – that was very prominent at Toulon. Know when to be serious, and the importance of switching off and relaxing with your mates.
“One day, we got taken out on a yacht day in St Tropez. I remember thinking, I could have been at Glasgow on a boat up the Clyde, and I’m here instead on the Cote d’Azur. Incredible experience. I only played two Top 14 games; the rest of the time I was playing for the espoirs side. Maybe if I’d gone to a smaller club, or joined the Glasgow academy, things would have worked out differently, but I don’t regret anything. Nobody else has had the experiences I’ve had.”
Certainly, there aren’t many blokes in Scotland who have a pair of Zinedine Zidane’s match-worn shorts kicking about the house. Toulon played the 1998 World Cup-winners in an exhibition match five years ago; twenty minutes of football, twenty of touch rugby. Step forward the Cote d’Azur’s answer to Duncan Ferguson.
“I’m gonna have to get it out there: I scored a goal, a volley in fact. The only thing was that it wasn’t past Fabien Barthez. As a Man United fan, I was looking forward to playing against him, but he wasn’t there. But we don’t need to let the truth get in the way of a good story. I just wish I’d had a crazy celebration planned, like a Tim Cahill. You know, cartwheel, shadow-box the corner flag.
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“I remember coming on and just chatting away to Robert Pires and Zidane. It was a fundraising event for a children’s charity, so I was straight up the tunnel to Zidane: ‘can I get your shirt?’ They were wearing the classic ‘98 shirt. He said ‘oh no, sorry, I’m giving it to one of the kids’. So I asked for his shorts instead, and he gave me them. He didn’t want mine in return. I’ve still got his shorts here.”
There was another lanky young lad in the espoirs back then, a towering, thoroughbred back-row who could never seem to compel Bernard Laporte to chuck him in with the big boys. Charles Ollivon’s struggles with game-time and injury, the latter nearly forcing a desperately premature retirement, are well-documented. On Friday, Ollivon’s France and Cramond’s Scotland collide in the Six Nations finale. At stake for the French, a tilt at the championship. For Scotland, an unlikely and historic win could send them shooting up to a best-ever placing of second.
“Ollivon signed from Bayonne as an espoir, and he never really got a look-in,” Cramond says. “He did have a cap for France at that point. He didn’t have many chances with the first team, but he and I played against Racing 92 away, where we sent a bit of a second team and won, and he was awesome, making 50m breaks.
“He had two years battling a shoulder injury where I don’t know if he played a game. He was back for maybe a year and made France captain. Now, he’s bloody untouchable. And it’s because he was never given a chance, which was quite common at the time – if you were an espoir, you were never really considered.
“Josua Tuisova, the Fiji wing, was an espoir with me and he was never really played until his last year – he’s exploded now, he’s a bloody freak. With the tightened JIFF rules around the number of French players clubs need to field, they’ve got no option but to play more French guys and it bloody works. Every other country, it doesn’t matter your age, if you’re good enough you play, and maybe they’ve realised that’s the way to look at things.”
Throughout all of this, Scottish Rugby have kept an eye on Cramond, and the lock has always left the door ajar to returning home. As recently as last year, Edinburgh made their interest known, and with Test honours on his mind, Cramond was ready to go back and give it his all. It never happened.
“For the last couple of years, talks about coming home were progressing,” he says. “Both years, it got to pretty advanced stages and then things just went quiet, slowed down, and they couldn’t really make a decision.
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“I had to make a decision for my future and ended up signing in Biarritz. I was really keen to get home last year and try and give it a shot, but it never worked out. This wasn’t a bad second choice.
“Edinburgh then signed Andrew Davidson and Marshall Sykes. When I saw they’d signed them I was a bit… pfft, frustrating, but I’m pretty chuffed with where I’ve ended up.”
Biarritz are in good shape as the business end of the season looms, perched neatly in third place with seven games remaining. Cramond loves the idyll of the place, the chilled vibes and the beauty that surrounds him.
“Biarritz literally is like a holiday destination,” he says. “You’ll see fine on Johnnie Beattie’s Instagram, the beaches are beautiful, it’s like you’re in the bloody Caribbean. There’s the surf culture, walking through the streets and guys are running around in their wetsuits carrying surfboards. When I was in Toulon or Vannes, I was always thinking that I didn’t want to live in France after my career, but here, it’s different.
“Getting promoted, playing Top 14 and living down here next year – that would be the ideal situation. We’re sitting in third having not played very good rugby. We’ve got a very good squad, we’ve beaten all the top teams, and we’re not really worried about the play-offs.
“We’ve beaten Vannes, Grenoble and Oyonnax away from home. We beat Perpignan at our place quite comfortably and we’ve got them to play away. We’re looking ahead quite confidently.”
Cramond, too, is looking ahead. He has begun work on a tentative new business plan, the creation of a bespoke Basque Country whisky. The French, he has learned, can’t get enough of the stuff.
“Looking into it, France is the biggest importer of Scotch whisky,” Cramond says. “I had no idea about that. And by quite a margin, like 70 million bottles compared to America with 40 million and Japan with 35 million. Bloody Brexit has slowed that down a bit with import duties, but I want to do it properly, make it and bottle it here.”
From Mourad to Zizou, Brittany to the Basque Country, and yachts to whisky, this road less travelled has been intoxicating. Cramond was made in Edinburgh, but like a fine malt, it is in France where he has come of age.
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