'I'm under no illusions, I'm not the same player I was at Clermont'
Funny how it has all sweetly turned out for Vannes veteran Nick Abendanon. Ten months ago, he thought his career was finished. The Top 14 season had been terminated. So too the plus-one deal that the 34-year-old thought would keep him going for another year at Clermont. It was upsettingly scratched and the scrapheap beckoned.
Twelve-month contract offers from Leicester and London Irish offered a lifeline but he didn’t bite. The upheaval of switching countries in a pandemic for something that didn’t offer long-term security just wasn’t worth the hassle for someone with a young family well settled in France.
In his head he was done, finished, ready to embrace an alternative career. The property market sounded good. Definitely not coaching. Too much impact on family time. Then came the call that changed everything. A two-year playing deal with ambitious Vannes in the Pro D2. Goodbye Massif Central. Hello Brittany coastline.
Abendanon has giddily embraced the change in scenery. “Brittany is a lovely part of the world, a coastal region,” he enthused to RugbyPass. “It has got a bit of a Cornwall type vibe, right next to the sea so we’re at the beach a lot of the time with the kids, long walks along the Gulf of Morbihan which is a lovely scenic area where they do lots of sailing.
“It’s very picturesque, completely opposite to what Clermont is like, mountainesque, freezing in the winter, boiling in the summer. It’s a completely different place in terms of that, but it’s a very beautiful spot.”
??Immersion au coeur du groupe pour tous nos supporters !
Vous nous manquez. Cette victoire est pour vous ? pic.twitter.com/E1L8UJ1hhP
— Rugby Club Vannes (@RugbyClubVannes) February 12, 2021
His promotional bit done for the local tourist board, what about the rugby? A two-time England cap, all Abendanon had known during his nine years at Bath followed by a half-dozen more years at Clermont was the pampered elite club game. Division Two? That was something beyond his postcode.
“I have never been someone who watches a huge amount of rugby outside of playing it, so I wasn’t really too clued up on the Pro D2, but I knew some great players that have come up from the Pro D2 who have shown it is a great platform to get a bit of game time and then get your opportunity to come up into the Top 14.”
The grassroots adventure for Abendanon at Vannes has been enlightening. “It’s chalk and cheese. You can’t make a comparison between the two clubs. Clermont is one of the big European powerhouses and Vannes have come up from Federale 3 over the last ten years and are trying to progress their way into the Top 14.
“They have big plans to build a training centre at the end of this season and are putting things in place to make sure they are a very ambitious club. But the first day I came to Vannes, I rocked up and they said, ‘This is where the training ground is’. It was a couple of makeshift tents and a couple of Portakabins and I was like, ‘Oh, what the hell have I done here?’
“But it’s quite refreshing in a way. All the guys, there is no big egos. Everyone is very grounded. They work very, very hard here, they are all very ambitious, they all want to do their best to get spotted and seen and hopefully play in the Top 14. It’s refreshing to come down a peg and re-find the love of the game, I guess.”
Tell us more. “It’s always difficult in a team like Clermont where you have got so many superstars in the team. You have got almost two internationals in each position, there is bound to be people that are upset. When things go wrong fingers get pointed and stuff.
“Then you have got players who are also worrying about their French careers and things like that. Sometimes the dynamic is difficult in such a big team like that whereas here every one is working towards the same task. They rotate the squad really well.
“They give guys equal opportunities and the players really work hard for each other and put in a huge amount of effort. That makes life a whole lot easier. You don’t have any big-heads or egos and everyone can just crack on and concentrate on giving their all.”
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With it has come a very different role for Abendanon at Vannes. Not only has he had to change his style of game due to his age, but he has also had to adapt in order to blend in with a squad that is very much his junior. Essentially, he has had to get on down with the kids, take an interest in the fads and the frolics that these days occupy the minds of young men in their 20s.
“I’m under no illusions I’m not the same player I was at Clermont. Every training session and game is getting harder and harder. The legs definitely aren’t moving as quickly as they used to so I have got to try and use my rugby intelligence and nous to create opportunities.
“Not making breaks for myself but trying to put other people into gaps. A bit more of a playmaker than a game-breaker,” explained the 2015 European player of the year who is back in harness following an eleven-week winter layoff in between appearances due to a small ankle fracture sustained at Biarritz in November.
“I’m probably ten years older than most of the guys here so I have tried to give as much as I can to the team experience-wise and help out with the coaches. It’s great to be involved. The team bond we have got this year, it’s the best environment I have been in throughout my career. Everyone gets on well and that really shows on the field, so I’m really happy to have made the choice to come to Vannes,” beamed Abendanon.
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“It was initially a bit difficult (fitting in). It brought back memories of my student days in Bath and the topics of conversation we used to have back then rather than the conversations I have with my wife and kids. But it has been a breath of fresh air. The youngsters bring a lot of energy, a lot of excitement. There are always lots of laughs and joking around.”
This camaraderie is enhanced by away games. Whereas Clermont was centrally located for Top 14 excursions, Vannes is geographically off the beaten track. “The nine-hour bus trips are an eye-opener,” he quipped.
“Vannes is not very well situated in terms of travelling around France. The last bus trip was eight hours to Beziers. So eight hours there and eight hours back, getting back into the house at seven in the morning just as the kids are about to wake up.
“That’s not the most pleasant of things but it’s all an experience and thankfully we have been winning, so it makes the bus trips back more enjoyable. There is a good amount of beer flowing on the bus and the boys are cracking the music out. All new experiences and they are definitely an eye-opener.”
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Friday night’s latest escapade was marginally a little less time consuming, just the seven hours each way to Aurillac and back for Abendanon and co but it was worth it, Vannes picking up their 15th win in 19 outings. They’re two points clear of Perpignan at the top with eleven rounds remaining before the end-of-season playoffs decide who goes up to the Top 14.
Having only escaped Federale in 2016, for a club relatively new to the second-tier to be in the running to join the French elite is the quite the story and an away fixture at Clermont would be something Abendanon would probably drive the Vannes team bus to, so itching would he be to get back there. However, there are fears that going up now could be too soon for Vannes at this stage of their development.
“At this moment in time I can’t picture it [an away match at Clermont] but I’ll tell you what, it would be great if it did happen. It would be pretty special, it would be up there with one of my memories I would keep for a very long time after I finished playing.
“I’m really happy to have seen how the team has progressed and how we haven’t faltered under the pressure of being at the top spot. We have got more to give and we will definitely be there come the playoffs, but I don’t think anyone is under illusions.
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“It would be incredibly difficult to stay up in the Top 14 if we were to go up this year but they are making a great investment in the club, they are doing some great recruiting and so if we do go up we have managed to retain 90 per cent of the squad that we have got this year so that is a good start. If we went up this year it’s probably two years too soon but you will see Vannes going up into the Top 14 within a five-year period I reckon.
“There is definitely a notable difference skill-wise,” he added, contrasting the difference between Top 14 and Pro D2. “Luckily for me, as my body is getting older and I’m getting slower, this makes it a little more of an easier transition to go down to the Pro D2 because the skill level is not as high as it is in Top 14.
“Defensively players probably don’t make as good a read as they do in the Top 14 so you get a bit more space on the ball. But it’s probably a league more forward orientated. There is a lot based around a good solid scrum, lineout, our driving maul this year has been exceptional. We have scored a lot from there. But the last three or four games our backline have shown what class we have got in the team and it’s paying rewards.”
These are rewards Abendanon never expected to be enjoying and the lesson of last year’s near career-ending limbo before he was snapped up by Vannes is to get better clued up on what to do when the boots are hung up. “It definitely shed light on it,” he said about the ordeal of thinking he was prematurely finished.
— Rugby Club Vannes (@RugbyClubVannes) February 9, 2021
“I’d an offer from London Irish, from Leicester, but they were both one year and I wasn’t keen to make huge upheaval from where we are very comfortable in Clermont to going back to the UK just for one year. It’s just not enough time to put roots down.
“It made much more sense just to stay in France and in my head I was ready to stop. I’d pretty much made my mind up that it was going to be the end and I had accepted that, but luckily this new chance to play a bit of rugby came up and I took it with open arms. My wife and I thought why not give it one last adventure and having been here in Vannes for six months we’re very glad that we have done it,” explained Abendanon.
“There is lots of different things I thought about doing but I’m not sure, I don’t have a clear path as of yet of what I’m going to be doing after rugby. I pretty much know I won’t stay in rugby. When I was younger I thought I would probably become a coach but I have decided against that.
“I don’t like the lifestyle of coaching. Fair play to them, they work a huge amount of hours. I just don’t think it leads well to family life. They are away every single weekend, they have got to work crazy hours. I just think that is something that doesn’t lead to where I want to be.
“I love property so getting into property development or something like that is something that interests me a lot and I’m going to try and do as much work experience over the next two years before I retire so maybe I can go to that sort of sector.”
Sounds like a plan to reckon with after last year’s uncertainty.
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