Former England back row Steffon Armitage says that being dropped by Martin Johnson in favour of Lewis Moody proved a catalyst for him to move to France and to better himself as a rugby player.
Armitage, who is currently playing for Biarritz in the ProD2, has enjoyed a stellar career in France since he decamped from London Irish back in 2011. He enjoyed memorable spells at Toulon and Pau and the 34-year-old is now trying to negotiate the pitfalls of French rugby’s second flight.
“You haven’t played French rugby until you’ve played ProD2. Can you see on the weekends the way the referees and the way the rules are different,” Armitage told Le French Rugby Podcast. “It’s tough. It’s special.”
Born in Trinidad, Armitage and his brothers grew up watching and playing cricket and not rugby. Brian Lara, not Will Carling, was their collective boyhood idol and it wasn’t until they moved to the UK that the oval ball would come to dominate the household.
“My dad took us to see our first rugby match, Richmond against Northampton, when they were in the Premiership. It looked kind of fun and a little bit scary. I was tiny, my brothers were as well. We weren’t the biggest guys and just to see people smacking each other, it was different.
“My mum got the good idea that instead of smashing each other at home, why don’t you go and try and do it against someone else? We said why not and since that day we loved it.”
After a spell at Saracens, Armitage’s formative years in professional rugby would come at London Irish under the tutelage of Toby Booth and Neal Hatley.
“All through the academy at London Irish, the coaches we’ve had, they’ve looked after us really well. They were very down to earth. They knew when to push us. Sometimes we needed a little kick and knew when to do it.
“Having Toby Booth there and Neal Hatley, just having all those boys around me, it was just great. You can see by all the boys who have gone on to other clubs: Anthony Watson, Jonathan Joseph, Matt Banahan and Matt Garvey, Tom Homer, the names just go on. They’re all over the country.”
Yet while he was becoming a force to reckon with at club level, Armitage would win just five caps for England in a Test career that was practically over before it started. Being dropped by then England head coach Martin Johnson in 2010 for backrow veteran Lewis Moody would prove a seminal moment in his career.
“We went on tour to Australia with England. It was tough. Martin Johnson pretty much said I wasn’t good enough and to go away and improve myself. For me to improve myself, I had to go and push myself.”
“It’s hard as we got to Australia and you were told ‘you’re going to start the first Test’ and everything was going well. Training was going good and then all of a sudden I got called in and I was told ‘we need Lewis Moody’s experience’.
“I was like ‘how am I supposed to get experience?’. So I thought I was going to be on the bench and then I was told ‘We’re going to put Joe Worsely on the bench because he can cover all three back-row positions’.
“I was like ‘I’ve got a problem’, looks like I’m not going to be playing at all. It was definitely a shock and it definitely made me want to try harder and go away and become a better player. I always said from that day I’m never going to give them any excuses not to pick me.”
“At London Irish, in my head, most weekends I knew I would be in the team. I needed that extra step to make me become a better player.
“I got an offer to go to Toulon from Philippe Saint-André. He said, ‘if you come out, you’re going to be fourth choice’. I wanted to prove to myself and to everyone that I was good enough. I had to get over there and push for a starting place at Toulon. I took the hard step. I gave up everything, me and my wife, and we moved over and I’m glad we did as it made me the player I am today.”
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