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Jack Nowell: 'You can’t fault what I’m doing at the moment'

By Liam Heagney
Jack Nowell, the La Rochelle player, in action on the beach as a Red Bull athlete (Photo via Red Bull)

You could tell from the view over the shoulder of Jack Nowell the other evening that La Rochelle is quite the idyllic place to raise his young family. Ile de Re is an Atlantic coast island connected to the French mainland via a 2.9km toll bridge and the Nowells are well settled judging by the spacious backyard visible on the Zoom call.

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So attached are they to the area that when it comes to moving from their current rental in a few weeks, they’re essentially only hoping over the fence. “This is my home at the moment,” beamed Nowell, chatting from his patio-doored kitchen with training done for the day and the kids pottering about.

“I’ve actually just found a house which we are going to move into. It’s still on the island, literally about 400 metres down the road from where we are staying now. We like it so much here that we didn’t want to leave.

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“During the winter it’s very much like Cornwall where it’s a bit of a ghost town, just the locals around. But as soon as you start getting into this time of the year, you start seeing more pressure points on the road, a lot more traffic and a lot more people at the beach.

“It’s pretty phenomenal. The last couple of weeks have been unbelievable. Bright blue skies, cycling to the beach with the kids for a swim. Back here then for a barbecue. My Commando Joe is just right outside my window there now. That was the first thing I put up I think. You can’t fault what I’m doing at the moment. I absolutely love it.”

It will be that way for a long time to come. When Nowell originally put pen to paper on swapping the Gallagher Premiership for Top 14, it was for two years through to the summer of 2025. However, so productive was his settling-in period that it was confirmed in February that his deal was extended by a further two years until the end of 2026/27.

“I signed a two-year originally,” he explained. “A lot was riding on that in terms of family and making sure they’re settled as much as I am. But as soon as I started speaking to Ronan (O’Gara) again about re-signing, it was a pretty obvious decision for me to make.”

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The sacrifice in moving across the Channel was the termination of Nowell’s 46-cap England Test career, but the club-level rewards are obvious. Not since 2014/15, when he made 21 Premiership and Challenge Cup appearances for Exeter, has he been so active. There have been 20 outings so far – 18 as a starter – with two regular season rounds remaining before the play-offs La Rochelle are still looking to qualify for.

It’s quite the change for someone riddled with injury in recent years. “My body feels good,” he said with a smile. “I hurt my hand at the start of the season; I was a bit unlucky there. There was nothing I could have really done about that, but my body feels great.

“Maybe it’s the heat, maybe it’s the difference in training. My body feels good. The games are difficult but I was told that before coming to the Top 14. The games are hard and it’s a long season but I’m enjoying working with new coaches, being with new players. It’s certainly opened my mind up to a new approach to the game and a different approach to training.

“I’m probably a little bit lighter than what I have been in the past. Normally I’ve been around 97, 98 kilos. I’m around 94 at the moment. Not on purpose or anything. Maybe it’s just the way we train and, like I said, it’s a long season, you do need to look after your body. It’s a little bit less weights, a bit more rehab and prehab and stuff like that to make sure my body lasts the season,” he said, going on to reference useful advice from boss O’Gara.

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“He had a little word about my warm-up during the week. He said the game is not won during the week. The hard work is done but the game is on the Saturday, so he has made me rethink my warm-ups and the way I approach them.

“He said the big thing you have got is experience, you have done a lot of work, I need you fresh for the 80 minutes of the game; I don’t want you playing it over in your head or beating your body up before you start. So I have changed my approach in the warm-up and things like that.

“But again, like I said about training, being involved with this team during the week, it’s a very family-driven club. Again I go back to what Ronan first said to me, get your family settled and if they’re not settled I don’t want to see you in the club yet. You need to make sure your kids are okay, your wife is okay before you think about training.

“That was one of the first things he said to me and that’s stuck with me the whole time. Just being here throughout the year, the amount of family events we’ve had with the club, how much they look after us on game day, my wife and my kids.

“The social events off the field as well, Christmas time, family barbecues and things like that, it has certainly stuck to what Ronan has said and what the club is about. For me, my family is massive and to know they’re being looked after so much by the club puts my mind at ease, put it that way.”

So what’s the ambition? “I feel like I have started my career again in one way, I still feel like a little kid that has just started, getting to know the boys, getting to know the coaches, driving into all these stadiums for the first time. It’s been good; that side of it has definitely freshened up a lot of me.

“I’ve no niggles like I had the last couple of years touch wood. I feel I’m getting better and better, I feel more comfortable and feel like we are getting better and better as a team. It’s been a season of ups and downs. The boys have been so successful over the last couple of years, but the international lads had a bit of a disappointing World Cup and things like that do take a toll on your body mentally and physically.

“It’s important for us boys to get around those international lads and drive them forward at the club as much as we want to drive ourselves forward. We have got to look after those boys a lot as well. It has been a tough season.

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“We would like to have won more games than we have but we’re still in a very good position to go on and win this. La Rochelle have never won a Top 14 before so it’s something that the whole team and I want to experience together. We still have a big drive before the end of the season.”

The 31-year-old specialist winger even volunteered for a half-dozen starts at outside centre. “I liked it, liked getting my hands on the ball. For me, it felt like the pressure was off because I was playing a position I hadn’t played in a while. But like I said to Ronan at the start, I don’t mind where I play as long as I’m on the field. I like to get my hands on the ball and it’s a different challenge. I really enjoyed it at the start of the year.”

There are old acquaintances to catch up with weekly. Last weekend it was Joe Simmonds and Dan Robson from Pau. Next weekend it will be Jack Willis at Toulouse, and the campaigns will end with a visit from the Racing-based Henry Arundell.

The frequent catch-ups highlight how so many names familiar to the Premiership now ply their trade across the Channel, and it will only get busier in 2024/25 when Owen Farrell and co make the trip over.

As it stands, Nowell doesn’t see RFU ending its rule that only England-based players are eligible for selection in Steve Borthwick’s Test squad. “I don’t think so. I’m very much on the fence about the whole thing.

“I obviously get asked this quite a bit. I’ve said it before, would English players be as appealing to some of the French clubs if we were able to disappear for the Six Nations as well as their French players? I’m not too sure.

“The fact that the clubs get to keep us all year around and play for the team all year around is certainly very appealing. I have played in the Premiership for so long and it is still one of the best competitions in the world. At the moment it’s not as good as it could be, but I’m sure it will get back up there.

“Everybody’s reasons are different. Whether it is experience, whether it is money, everyone is on a different boat so you can’t really put everyone down to the same bracket. The majority of us that have come over now are probably around a similar age and have done a lot of our career in England.

“Probably Henry Arundell is the exception, one of the younger ones that is over, but the majority of us now are at a certain age. It’s cool, it’s nice. I’ve spoken to Manu (Tuilagi) quite a bit and his wife has spoken to my wife a bit as well about what to expect, what they need, and what they need help with when he comes to Bayonne next season.

“To be able to help those guys and speak about my experience as well has been good, but having a couple of more boys in the Top 14 next season will be pretty good to see. Each week I find there is someone I know or that I played with or played against that are over here.

“It is quite nice to see those faces and speak about their experience and stuff and see how they are finding it. It’s good to catch up because a lot of these boys I played with for a long time. To see they are enjoying it just as much as I am, it’s good to see.”

The match atmospheres are especially appealing. “It’s incredible here,” Nowell enthused. “We were watching third-division rugby on TV the other day before we played because some of the boys had friends who were playing. Rugby is massive. Not just the Top 14. There is the Pro D2 and the leagues below that everybody is interested in.

“The whole build-up is incredible and then when you get to the games, the atmosphere is incredible in terms of the fans, the stadium walks. You have the flares going off, the fireworks pre-game. It’s a pretty impressive show to witness.

“Bordeaux the other week was quite cool, one of our local games, and seeing the number of fans that travelled down and the noise they make. The first home game at the beginning of the season was pretty special as well. And the Toulouse game (at home). I didn’t play in it but it was New Year’s Eve, some of my mates came over and I experienced it from sitting in the stands.”

We know younger brother Frankie is currently away in Australia playing Shute Shield after exiting Exeter in March, but what about other family members tapping into Nowell’s first year in France? “Mum and dad did tell me they were going to come over at least once a month to watch a game – they have actually been over just twice but to get to La Rochelle in winter is hard.

“The airport is shut. The closest airport is Bordeaux or Nantes and for my family to come from Cornwall, it’s probably a trip to London to get across. It’s a big journey to get here unless they are going to drive. But I’m sure with the sun starting to come out I’m going to get more friends and family over.”

He’ll try and help them linguistically. “I’m learning French, it’s very hard. I’ve my teacher online and a teacher here at La Rochelle. The most depressing thing is my kids pretty much understand everything their French teacher speaks to them. They are speaking more and more each day.

“They have the accent as well and are quite often correcting me on how I say stuff, which is awesome to hear my kids picking up so quickly. I feel like I still have a long way to go but I’m in the right place. All of our meetings in the club, Ronan is fluent, all the coaches are fluent, so all of our stuff is done in French when we are in the training ground.

“If there is anything I need to know extra the guys are very happy to help me and see if I have missed anything. For me there is no choice not to learn it because we hear it every single day in here, so I feel like I’m in a good place to pick it up.”

Any uncertainties, just ask Red Bull, the energy drink Nowell is still an ambassador for despite his switch from England to France. “If I have ever needed anything, like when I broke my hand, if I needed to see another surgeon or see another physio because of the language barrier, Red Bull are always there to help me.

“And they are certainly sending me my quota of Red Bull cans which I thought I would struggle with over here but it’s been pretty plain sailing, to be honest. To be still part of the team even though I moved over here has been brilliant.”

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