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The French connection

From Bod’s hat-trick to Sexton’s drop-goal, no opponent has defined this Irish rugby century quite like France

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'If I played now the way I did when I was 20, I wouldn't survive'

By Liam Heagney
(Photo by Ramsey Cardy/Sportsfile via Getty Images)

Daddy daycare duty didn’t go quite to plan last weekend for Will Skelton in La Rochelle. With his fit-again wife Kate playing her first match of the Elite 2 women’s season at Dijon six hours east by road, the Wallabies international had taken Julius, the couple’s soon-to-be two-year-old son, along to watch the Heineken Champions Cup match versus Ulster.

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With dad currently sidelined with a tweaked MCL, it should have been the perfect father/son evening out, except it wasn’t. The weather was brutal, so much so that when the interval whistle blew with the scoreline locked in a 0-0 stalemate, the Skeltons bailed.

“We were just getting pumped by the rain, so I made an executive decision and left at half-time because he was getting wet so I thought, ‘F*** it, I don’t want him to get sick’”, explained Skelton to RugbyPass some days later.

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“We were in a sheltered area where the boys sit but the wind swirls here in La Rochelle so the rain was coming over the top of the stands and the wind was bringing it towards us so the poor guy, he has a little bit of a cough now… I had the game on my phone in the car so I could hear everything until I got home and then I checked it on TV, had a bit of dinner and was watching. It was nice.”

Not that it had been Skelton’s worst rugby weather experience during his two-and-a-half years so far in France. “I have seen worse (weather). We played Montpellier a couple of years ago and it was torrential rain with the wind. That was really bad.”

Enough weather small talk, though. Which parent will young Julius take after when it becomes his turn to play rugby? “He’s a big bopper, he will definitely be on the Skelton spectrum. He will be a big boy but hopefully he has got his mum’s cardio because she is a lot fitter than me. We’ll see what he wants to do when he grows up. He loves coming to the games, my wife will bring him to almost every home game. If there is an away game and we have got friends and family, they will drive down. He loves flags of La Rochelle as well, loves rugby balls and whatnot, and then there is this new thing, he loves planes.

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“If he is feeling a bit grumpy I’ll literally chuck on planes on YouTube taking off and he will sit there for hours watching that. He is quite active, loves running around. My wife chases him all the time, he is into going for walks now. We go to the park and he just runs and jumps in puddles and whatnot. He is a very active boy.”

Just like dad usually. Up until his New Year’s Eve setback at Perpignan, Skelton had featured in a dozen of the 16 Top 14/European matches La Rochelle had played until that point while he had also packed in three appearances in the Wallabies’ Autumn Nations Series. January has been a breather, though. “I tweaked my MCL, stretched it a bit, it was a grade one. I’m not in this week (at Northampton). Hopefully, we are going to try for next week (at Racing), it’s just a week-to-week thing.

“I love playing, if I could play every game I’d play it. I’m not really a fan of being rested but injuries come in sport. I’m looking forward to taking care of it and getting it right before I’m back, making sure it is 100 per cent.”

With age comes body wisdom. “That’s the cool thing about getting older,” reckoned the forward who turns 31 in May. “I guess you’re a bit slower, the body takes a bit longer to recover but in saying that, you get to know the body a bit more with the experience.

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“I was listening to a podcast and it said your best ability is being available so for me, it is about being available every week. I’m gutted by this injury but it is a long season and I’d rather get it right to be playing in the big games in May and June. Definitely, it’s a long season and getting those injuries and maintaining your body and getting your body right is the main thing.

“I don’t have a specific routine and I’m not superstitious or anything like that. During the week I’m not too fussed, I like to prep well with my training but other than that it’s whatever comes. I have got a young son and his schedule changes a lot.

“If he has had a good night’s sleep or if he is sick, things change. It is about adapting and just enjoying the moment,” he said before referencing his own fluctuating weight. “Definitely, I sit between 145 and 150kg normally. When I’m at 140 I am super fit, I’m good to go then but I sit between around 145 and 150 usually.”

Skelton isn’t even the biggest in his family. “My brothers are definitely taller than me, a head taller than me both of them. They had the potential to be big boys (in rugby) but they have chosen their own paths. Cameron was at Counties (in New Zealand). He’s just working now and they have a baby on the way, and then Logan is at home with my parents. He stopped rugby a long time ago when was 11 or 12, it’s been a long time since he put on the boots.”

Someone who is definitely putting boots on is Skelton’s fellow Australian Emmanuel Meafou, the 24-year-old Toulouse lock whose ambitions of a Six Nations call-up for Les Bleus this past week were iced by a delay in him securing a French passport. “He’s killing it at the moment,” remarked Skelton about a fellow giant whose vital statistics are both taller and heavier.

“I met him when he was quite young when he was maybe 17 or 18 in Melbourne when we [the Waratahs] played the Rebels there. He has grown a lot in his game and it’s awesome to see guys of a similar profile as me performing on the big stage. Hopefully, he can go on and do better things.”

Skelton loves putting himself about on the pitch in France. “It’s not as quick in the winter months, it’s a bit slower but also it’s physical. That’s what we love. As big boys we love that physicality, love the challenge of the upfront battle with forwards. Set-piece I really enjoy. The scrum can be good for you one week and another week could be different. It’s an exciting comp [the Top 14] and physically it is always very challenging.”

Being 6ft 8ins in height, though, to go with his near-23-stone physique can generate the odd X-rated moment in the tackle. There were three red cards in his last three clubs seasons (two with La Rochelle and another with Saracens), while his week with the Barbarians last June ended with the thud of a sending-off against an England XV at Twickenham. Tackle tech then is a regular work-on.

It’s not a highlight of my career being red-carded for the Baa-Baas but I did have a very special week, I did have a very enjoyable week with one of my good mates George Kruis and a lot of the French boys. To finish the game on the sideline hurt but to get the result was special. The boys were on it,” he said before shedding light on what he does to ensure he tackles better.

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“You have got to take ownership. That is the way the game is going now, looking at player safety. If you strip it right down it is about looking after players, prolonging careers and decreasing those head knocks. If that means guys are getting red-carded for direct contact to the head, that is a positive thing.

“But also it is still rugby, you are going to have collisions whether accidental or those split-second decisions you have got to make. It comes down to training and training those scenarios is hard because there are not too many drills you can do in training without having contact and whatnot.

“It is definitely a grey area for me having that but at the end of the day, you try and put yourself in a better position to make better decisions. Individually I have not had to change my technique much but be more aware of where I am and where my body is in making tackles, not always trying to put that big hit on. That is what I have changed a lot.

“We do a lot of specific drills and they more or less are non-contact drills so it’s about technique, about your footwork, about tackling low and if a second tackler is coming in he is coming up high and stopping that ball and trying to stay away from the head. And individually boys are doing extras, boys are trying to work on their dip when they have that late change of the ball carrier.

“We are doing a lot of work at La Rochelle. It is not always a week-to-week thing. It could be specific on how a team carries or how a team runs the ball or if I got penalised for making high shots before, I’m definitely going to put my hand up and do my extras and lower that tackle height.

“I guess the tackles guys could have done ten years ago when I was watching and coming through as an academy player, they are just not play on now and you have got to adapt to how the game is going. That is about adjusting your technique and playing a different way. I definitely had to in my learnings from when I was younger, I have had to adapt that because if I played now the way I did when I was 20 years old, I wouldn’t survive. I’d be red-carded every week.”

Skelton Barbarians red card
Will Skelton gets red-carded on Barbarians duty last June (Photo by Steve Bardens/Getty Images for Barbarians)

Skelton still only rates his French-speaking fluency at 20 per cent but La Rochelle will be home until the summer of 2025 and he is certainly enjoying the current challenge of seeing the club attempt to build on last season’s breakthrough Heineken Champions Cup title. They are third at the moment in the Top 14 and Saturday’s latest European win at Northampton secured home advantage in the round of 16.

“It has been interesting. We had a lot of new recruits who came into the squad off the back of winning Europe. It’s tough for them to come in, they have got a lot of pressure on their shoulders. But it is also eye-opening that we have done it once, let’s see if we can do it again and you have got that taste now.

“Ronan (O’Gara) always talks about having the taste of winning trophies and we have got that taste now, we have got that hunger to want to succeed and want to play in the big games in Europe and domestically in France. We are definitely hungry for more success.

“It is always nice to have (contract) security. As a family, we love La Rochelle, it’s a great city. The supporters are great, the people are great. We are really excited about where Ronan wants to take this club and the journey that we are on at the moment. We love it here, my son was born here so we have got a lot to be grateful for in La Rochelle. Yeah, 2025, hopefully I get there injury-free but at the moment I’m loving my rugby and loving the lifestyle in La Rochelle.”

To cap it all off, the pandemic restrictions on travel which existed in his first season at the club are no more. “We have been home twice now (to Australia) and my mum came over and met my son when he was about three or four months. That was nice.

“The world has opened up now and I always like it when family comes here because they get to experience the day-to-day of living in France, get to experience a different culture. My parents are going to try and come over together in May this year which would be really cool. My dad hasn’t come yet. He will love it here.”

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