Leaving Bath was '100 per cent the best decision I have ever made'
When Nick Abendanon plucked a soaring Camille Lopez parabola from the air and skidded over the Agen line two months ago, he never imagined it would be his last try as a professional player, let alone the final game of a magnificent career. There is nothing wrong with the full-back’s body, even at 33, no blunting of his rugby instincts or waning of his hunger to keep pulling on the boots. It is wholly preposterous that a talent so profound can be perched on the precipice of enforced retirement.
The problem is, while many would surely love to snap Abendanon up, no club seems to be in a position to do so. There are tightening regulations on the number of foreign imports Top 14 clubs can keep, and so his Clermont contract will not be renewed when it expires this summer.
More pressingly, the Covid-19 pandemic has shut down the sport indefinitely and inflicted untold financial chaos on some of the game’s behemoths. When clubs are staring at a potentially ruinous future, recruitment slams into the buffers and nobody is taking a chance on a wizened full-back.
For Abendanon, there will be no fanfare, no last hurrah, no final shot at silverware and a joyous cheerio before the braying Marcel Michelin support. In short, he is being quietly and inexorably forced out of the game.
“In my mind now, that’s what is happening, it’s the end,” he told RugbyPass. “I’ve still got the desire and the motivation to play. So if I was forced to retire because of the pandemic, but still hungry, it would be a shame because something that is uncontrollable has forced my hand.
“Clermont go to great lengths to say goodbye to players properly. After the last home game of the season, all the fans stay behind and they send you off well, make you feel like you have contributed to something over the years you have played for this fantastic team. If I was to stop early and not get that after playing here for six years, I’d feel a little bit hard done by.
“The rumour here in France is that they are potentially going to do the play-off games in August but that will be with next year’s squad, which means the players like me won’t be involved after playing the majority of the season. Stuff like that would be hard to take – not being able to complete what I have felt has been the highlight of my career, playing out here.”
Clermont informed Abendanon in October that they would not be keeping him on. There was fleeting interest from Grenoble and the Pro D2, but the often savage and unglamorous second tier did not appeal. There might yet be an offer from San Diego Legion in America’s fledgeling professional league, but that won’t materialise for many months and Abendanon is not entirely sold on the idea.
How he longed for a return to Bath, his hometown club where he dazzled for the thick end of a decade. “I tried to get the Bath flame going and potentially go back there for a year,” he revealed. “I know the owner Bruce Craig and Stuart Hooper, the director of rugby, and it’s where I’m from.
“But for them, they have got some young guys coming through who deserve a chance and Tom Homer is there playing pretty good rugby at the moment so that one fizzled out pretty quickly as well. Apart from that, there hasn’t really been anything else.
“Most clubs would go down the younger player route rather than signing an experienced head simply because it’s a cheaper option for them during a time that is so uncertain. Signing someone like me is a risk I’m sure some aren’t willing to take.”
And so, barring any late bites, that will be all. There are other players gazing at the same desolate prospects, among them Abendanon’s 31-year-old team-mate Loni Uhila, better known as the Tongan Bear, and heaps more besides whose contracts are expiring with futures distinctly murky.
The little maestro has earned handsomely from the game, particularly from his six years in the Massif Central, but in roughly ten weeks’ time that income judders to an abrupt halt.
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The Rugby Players’ Association of England are working manfully to support players through these deeply distressing days, their liaison officer Christian Day taking a machine gun to the approaches of the Premiership clubs to cutting salaries and furloughing staff.
The French teams have followed a uniform central directive, but Abendanon is wary of Provale, the players’ body looking after the Top 14. “I never actually joined Provale; it’s very poorly run,” he explained. “I don’t think it’s an organisation that is at all beneficial to the players. For me, they are in the pockets of the LNR and the FFR. They basically get told what to do by them and they’ll do it. I don’t feel they are representative of the players here.
“There have been plenty of cases since I have been here where players have really needed their help and they haven’t come through. Scott Spedding, for example, trying to become French-qualified after being here for a number of years, he wasn’t able to get any contracts in France and they completely gave him the cold shoulder. So I never signed up to Provale, but when I was at Bath I would say the RPA was a great organisation. It really was there for the players and worked hard to secure their best welfare.”
Rappelez-vous des superbes statistiques du week-end de @nick_abendanon ?
Sera-t-il un joueur clé dans les phases finales de la Champions Cup ?? ? pic.twitter.com/ub7yFtwzJP
— Champions Cup France (@ChampionsCup_FR) January 23, 2020
In six glorious years in the Auvergne, Abendanon has won the Top 14, played in two Champions Cup finals and graced a slew of monumental rugby occasions. He would dearly love to have won more than the two England caps that are a measly reflection of his ability, but rules on selecting foreign-based players, a plethora of rivals and an unfair perception that he was a weak defender put paid to that.
In the months before England’s heinous World Cup campaign of 2015, Abendanon was in the form of his life and the reigning European player of the year. Pugnacious flanker Steffon Armitage had also been nominated for the award after helping Toulon to the double. Stuart Lancaster didn’t select either for his tournament training squad, fearing undue disruption to the camp.
“After the season that we had both had, if I was Stuart Lancaster I would, without doubt, have brought us into the squad at least,” said Abendanon. “It doesn’t mean you have to select us for the World Cup. First of all, there were definitely players that kicked up a fuss about it, but that was mainly because they felt threatened. If I was Stuart I would definitely have brought us in and said, ‘at this stage you’re not going to the World Cup, prove to me otherwise’.
“If I was in the England squad that would have motivated me more to make sure I didn’t let the new players take my spot. It creates competition within the squad and looking back, that’s obviously something they maybe lacked having had their worst World Cup ever. It’s a shame I don’t have more caps, but I’m more than happy to sacrifice those caps for the last six years that I have had out here playing for one of the best clubs in Europe.”
He treasures the opportunities Clermont have given him, the fervour and the sheer infatuation of its people with their rugby team. These past six weeks have been a time for quiet reflection on all that Abendanon has achieved in the sport, precious hours with his two infant children and ferocious solo training just in case the phone should ring.
“When I decided to leave Bath, I was scared. Looking back now, it is 100 per cent the best decision I have ever made. I played in some huge games I would never, ever have experienced had I stayed. Playing at the Marcel Michelin is like playing in Bath vs Bristol every week. I won trophies here, played in Champions Cup finals, learned a new language, came out here with a girlfriend and now we’re married with two kids and a house.
“By making one simple decision to leave my comfort zone, it opened up experiences I will hold dear to my heart. I’m totally at peace with retiring. I’ve had an incredible ride, I’m one of the lucky ones to have been able to have done what I have done in the game, and if it is the end, then I do it with a huge smile on my face, fond memories and no regrets.”
If the curtain has come down, he can live with that. But what he’d give for an encore.
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