Will Skelton can’t wait for La Rochelle to get stuck back into a Heineken Champions Cup action that will stir his still-vibrant Saracens memories. Kingsholm will only echo to the sound of players’ voices next Friday night but that won’t stop the giant Australian from taking a moment in the build-up to remember what it used to be like to face Gloucester away with the Shed packed and the partisan atmosphere resembling a bear pit.
It was November 2019 when Skelton last played there, the boisterous locals revelling in it being Saracens’ first outing since a Gallagher Premiership points deduction – the first sanction en route to automatic relegation for repeated salary cap breaches – was applied. The Londoners got it in the neck that day, the verbals coming thick and fast.
“It’s going to be a tough game. We’re just lucky they won’t have fans there because their fans are relentless,” said Skelton to RugbyPass over the phone from the Bay of Biscay, the area in France where he could enjoy a Saracens sequel the following week as La Rochelle might host the now Alex Sanderson-coached Sale in the quarter-finals if the Easter weekend results fall a certain way.
Skelton’s Sarries ties remain strong. He’s still part of their PlayStation group and is fully clued in about the newly started Championship campaign which got off to a juddering start with that opening weekend crash at Cornish Pirates. “That is what made the transition to France quite easy, I still play a bit of PlayStation a couple of hours a week with a lot of the boys,” he explained.
“We play a bit of COD (Call of Duty), just get online, try to kill some things and we talk s*** mostly. I’m not very good. Sean Maitland is pretty good. Vincent Koch is handy but Richard Barrington is so poor, really bad. It’s good to chat to those guys every couple of days. It has been nice.
— William Skelton (@SkeltonWilliam) June 19, 2020
“When they lost that first game in the Champ it was tough not only for them but I was hurting as well not seeing them be successful. I know they will be up there. They have got great coaches and have a young squad as well. Hopefully, they can take their lessons and really fly into this comp and get back into the Prem.”
It was a wrench for Skelton to leave the club he had won Premiership and European honours with but the soon to be 29-year-old has landed on his big size 19-booted feet at La Rochelle, the club that is running second in the Top 14 following its latest win this weekend on the road in Bordeaux. He explained how his cross-channel shift came about.
“At the time we were going through the Saracens relegation salary cap dramas. I’d another year on my contract at Sarries, so we were looking at opportunities to go on loan potentially, go somewhere for a year and then come back to Sarries.
“That just didn’t work out and La Rochelle came to the table for a two-plus-one, a three-year deal,” continued Skelton. “We visited the town, met the coaches, met the president, had a tour of the facilities and we were pretty happy with the decision to come. I didn’t know many boys here. I knew Lopeti Timani and had met Uini Atonio a few times, who is massive here at the club, and it went from there.
“We have been in form this season. We did hit a couple of losses in a row that we have had to look internally at. We drew a line in the sand and we will see where we can go because we have got a special team, a good group of boys, and we want to be really successful this year.”
Just like at Saracens where the starts were plentiful, they are a weekly occurrence in France with La Rochelle where the only bump for Skelton was a post-Christmas red card at home to Montpellier that resulted in a four-week ban for a high shot. He didn’t crib, outlining his respect for the ongoing clampdown regarding contact with the head.
“It’s warranted and the concussions cases, I haven’t seen the numbers but it makes sense to limit the cases of concussions so you have got to stop the hits to the head,” reasoned the 6ft 8in lock. “For my case there against Montpellier, I just got the tackle wrong.
“I tried to add weight to the tackle. A two-man tackle is always better than a one-man tackle and I came in too high, I had no dip, got it wrong and I paid the punishment there. Going forward it’s a technique thing. There is no excuse for us big guys.
— Darren Carlson (@darrencarlson_) December 27, 2020
“You have got guys like Brodie Rettalick, Sam Whitelock, probably the best locks in the world, and Maro Itoje, these guys are tackling low, they are chopping in games and then picking their moments when they can put a dominant hit around the ball just below the shoulders.
“There is no excuse for us big guys. It’s a technique thing. If you don’t practice it you can’t do it on the field. For me that is what I have been working on here, trying to do my extras on that dip and trying to make it count on the weekend.”
The general physicality of the Top 14 is very much to his liking. “Very much so. Some big boppers here, mate, so it’s a tad slower. It’s a physical game, especially when you see the passion playing away, those teams at home step up that extra level.
“It has been a bit different without fans but you still feel that physicality in a game. I do like throwing my weight around but it’s something you have got to be consistent at here in France with such a long season and teams improving every week,” said Skelton, adding that his favourite La Rochelle moment was day one of the season.
“We were allowed some fans in (under restriction) and La Rochelle is renowned for its support. To half-fill it was amazing. It felt like a fortress. Just running out there with the boys for that first game against Toulon was special for me.”
— Rugbydump.com (@Rugbydump) February 24, 2021
Away from the game, the most special moment was the birth of his and wife Kate’s son less than five weeks ago. “When we came over she was four months pregnant. We have now got a little boy, Julius. It’s been eye-opening. But it’s funny, I had three nights in a row of twelve hours sleep recently. I don’t think my wife was very happy with that.”
What helped them to quickly settle? “I didn’t grow up near the water but my wife did so when I saw it was a massive factor for us (to be on the coast), it was a massive factor for my wife. We sometimes wake up and see how early the sun comes up.
“I found London was a lot greyer but I was used to it. I’d get up to go to training and it would be really dark and then I’d come home at about four o’clock and it would be getting dark. Being in La Rochelle next to the sea has been an energy giver for us.
“It was tough that we didn’t finish the Sarries season, which felt a bit empty leaving everyone there without a proper goodbye. But we came into France when everywhere was sort of open for a couple of months, so we enjoyed the French lifestyle, got to go to restaurants and whatnot.
“We’re still doing French lessons once a week. We have our teacher come over to our house and we follow protocol, all wearing masks. It’s a tough language but we’re getting slowly used to it because I know our experience will be a lot more enjoyable if we can understand what everyone is saying.”
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Any fears that the peak physical condition Skelton enjoyed at Saracens would be lost in France have proven unfounded. He still touches regularly base with Andy Edwards, the S&C coach who is now head of athletic performance with the Springboks, while a nutritionist he took on board some years ago is also in regular contact. Eating well and staying healthy is very much on Skelton’s mind.
“Andy was massive for me. He and Phil Morrow pushed me hard. Andy’s going to be a massive loss for Sarries but it just shows how valued he is that he got that gig with the Springboks. I still talk to him almost every week now. I send him a text, ask him questions, get tips on stuff that I’m doing at La Rochelle so I can help some boys here.
“He was massive in pushing and driving me, keeping me honest and keeping me accountable because I guess if you’re not being kept accountable by your mates then it is hard to get better. The thing with my weight is I fluctuate so much. Nothing is really accurate.
“When I first arrived at Sarries I had broken my arm and I was 156, 157kgs. I had just come off surgery so I was heavy. That season I struggled a bit and then the next pre-season I came in and got down to 135kgs for that first game but my playing weight is about 140. That is a good representation of my weight. I’m that now, about 140.
“I can drop a kilo, two kilos overnight. It’s a constant battle but it’s something I have had to come to terms with. Sometimes I jump on the scale and feel really good, but if I’m heavy it can almost dampen my mood, it can affect how I’m feeling so I have had to learn not to really worry about it as much.
— William Skelton (@SkeltonWilliam) July 3, 2020
“But yeah, it’s a constant thing for me. I don’t think it will ever go away because coaches and trainers look at it. If I’m heavy on the scale I worry (they are thinking), ‘Oh, is he not working hard enough or is he eating too much away from the club?’ It’s an internal thing I have got to really manage myself. A lot of players have the same problem, and vice-versa where they need to put on weight.
“That pre-season when I dropped all that weight I got my own personal nutritionist. I found one with my wife and it was someone who wasn’t involved in rugby so she could look at me in a different light. She was really good for me and I’m still with her now. I check in every week and she gives me my weekly calorie targets. It’s a relationship that has really helped me, seeing food and seeing nutrition as a whole and helping with my performance.
“My relationship with food was a bit rocky when I started my career, probably not eating and trying to fast. That probably didn’t work for me because then when I did eat I’d overeat and I’d feel like s***. I have got a handle on that now, I have got it under control. It’s been good… no-one’s perfect, I still have those days where I overeat and whatnot but it’s just having that mentality that I can go and get back on it the next day and I will be fine.”
Another fluctuation is the size of Skelton’s footwear. “Size 17, 18, 19, it varies. My boots are size 19, size 18 UK, but then the shoes I normally wear vary between 17 and 18, I like my boots to be a bit bigger as I can wear them straight away and they are comfortable. They are probably a size too big, size 18, 19 US.
“Asics made me some boots in 2015 and they still have the mould, so I ring them. I have probably got 20 pairs at home that I have bought out of fear that I would rip a pair and wouldn’t be able to play. They last maybe six months, almost a year, but the thing is if I lose a stud then I have almost got to chuck the whole boot away because if the thread goes the boot is probably worthless.”
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Visit Skelton’s social media and his bio reads ‘Loves Jesus, Loves People’. Faith is important to the New Zealand-born Australian forward who won 18 caps between 2014 and 2016 and he can’t wait for the world to reopen so that his family can get over to France and see their new addition.
“I wouldn’t say my wife and I are devout Christians but I do have that faith in every day and we say our prayers every night. It’s more the relationship with Jesus and the way that we live.
“It’s hard here in France, we can’t really speak the language that well so going to church has been tough but we try to go online and stay up to date with our church back home. My wife reads the Bible a lot and we will hopefully bring our son up the same way we are at the moment.
“Family is the one thing we miss from back home. I don’t miss the food and Australia itself, I don’t miss it as much but you miss family, having our son’s grandparents there and not having his cousins, but there isn’t much you can do with what is happening in the world.
“I guess I’m just very lucky to live here in a beautiful part of France, making memories with my wife and our son. Hopefully, when this all clears up I can bring my family over to visit this town, give them an experience they have never had in their life. It has been tough without them but I’m hoping soon enough stuff can open up and they can come over.”
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