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'Probably the worst week of my life where I wanted to quit rugby'

By Liam Heagney
Delon Armitage lines up a London Irish kick versus Bourgoin in 2009 (Photo by Warren Little/Getty Images)

Of all the weeks for Delon Armitage to hop on a Zoom call with RugbyPass, it had to be the one just gone, the one where his beloved London Irish spectacularly went to the wall. He spent nine years playing in their first team, a longevity capped by the club’s progress to a 2008 Heineken Cup semi-final and a 2009 Premiership final appearance that intertwined with his 26-cap England career.

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Now, though, the club is brutally no more. Last Tuesday’s RFU suspension was followed the next day by owner Mick Crossan putting the debt-ridden business into administration. It was a cruel denouement, seven months of takeover talks counting for naught and leaving around 100 players and staff unemployed.

It’s tough. It’s devastating. These poor people,” reflected Armitage, his voice croaking as he tried to put into words the loss of the place he fondly called home for so many years. “Relegation you can deal with but the club going under it is a heartbreaker for these players, family, friends, supporters who have been there for years.

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“I don’t know what I can say would make anyone feel better. It is a devastating moment in rugby. I had hoped it wouldn’t come to that. These poor guys. Hopefully, they can find new clubs and move forward. I had hoped in my heart it wouldn’t happen.”

Having exited the Premiership in 2012, Armitage went on to enjoy a fabulous second chapter in France, revelling in four trophy-filled seasons at Toulon before having a three-year swansong at Lyon.

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The sport financially generally washes its face over there (unless you’re currently Grenoble in Pro D2) whereas in England the demise of Irish was the third time since last September that a top-flight club went under. Meanwhile, the Championship remains vastly under-resourced and unloved by the RFU.

What is Armitage’s perspective when he compares and contrasts life on both sides of the Channel? “I could see from the French side how it works but that is easier said than done,” he admitted. “You have got your owners, they come in, they close down the whole town when a game is on and all the money that is spent in that town or village is in that stadium.

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“They have big TV rights money, and they are doing really well. On the English side, I don’t know enough to know why that doesn’t work. I’m guessing. Apart from one or two clubs, they don’t actually make money in rugby over here so these poor owners/sponsors, it is a lot of money for them every year to see their team potentially not do as well as they want. I don’t know the answers, but I do know something has to be done because three clubs in the air – that’s not good for the game.”

It’s quite the coincidence that amid the crushing backdrop of the London Irish going bust, Armitage was on the line with RugbyPass to talk about the launch of Real Men Relax, the Spabreaks.com Men’s Health Week campaign. As a player, hanging out at a spa was a refreshing R’n’R getaway he didn’t say no to.

“It was nice sometimes when you were playing. I couldn’t really sit around and not do anything but yeah, I did use it a lot. Where we trained if there was that facility it was nice to have a break and time out with your mates in some of these spas, sitting around in the pool just having a chat about anything but rugby.”

But what about the men’s health aspect of this initiative? Armitage played in an era where dressing room machoness ruled and revealing your true emotions was very difficult. It changed the deeper he got in his career, but the coldness left its scars. Even now, an uncomfortable incident from April 2009 remains vivid in Armitage’s mind.

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“There is more than one occasion where you just wanted someone to their arms around,” he explained. “I remember my first ever time was we played a game in the (Challenge Cup) quarter-final against Bourgoin and I missed the conversion to take us into extra time in the last minute.

“At that moment all I wanted was for someone to put their arms around me and say, ‘Look, it was okay’, but no one did. They kind of left me in my corner and that was probably the worst week of my life where I wanted to quit rugby, didn’t like anyone. No one gave me that (reassurance) and the fact that I remember it is bad because it is something you should get over really quickly.

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Delon Armitage launches Real Men Relax, the Spabreaks.com Men’s Health Week campaign (Photo by Greg Coleman)

“I like that now people are aware of it and do put their arms around people and give people the help that they need. It wasn’t like that in my time; it wasn’t something that you did, wasn’t something that you thought that you could do, but it definitely is a lot better now.

“Yes, it has changed and definitely you can be a bit more open about that kind of stuff, which is brilliant. It is very important if you are not feeling well to be able to talk to someone about it because I know back in the day when I played it was always a ‘toughen up, get over it attitude’ but nowadays a lot of awareness is going on, being open, being able to voice your opinion on how you are feeling, it is very important.”

Armitage encountered a variety of controversies over the years, bans for abusing and pushing a doping official, a suspension for verbally abusing Leicester fans, a bust-up with ex-England hooker Brian Moore over his 2013 Heineken Cup final try celebration, and so on… the bottom line was he had to be mentally tough to survive and the older he got, the better he became. That said, if he was a player today, he’d run miles away from social media and all the negativity it invites.

“I wouldn’t go on it as a player,” he cautioned. “I say this to a lot of people, if you can’t handle one person being negative to you then don’t go on social media – and also one of my best mates at the time was giving me some advice about it.

“Everybody wants followers, everybody wants people looking at how many people follow you, but for the 100 people that follow you, there are 50 that want to see you do badly. So if you can deal with it, then go on social media. If you can’t deal with that abuse because it is the nature of the beast, then don’t go on it.

“Definitely, it did go through my mind a lot of times the stuff I would get. We didn’t really have social media back in my time, but I did get a lot of abuse over the years. For me, it was hard at times but moving to Toulon, where you have got good guys around, good teammates, family around you, it helps.

“I was able to remember the good times, winning the trophies, the main thing about rugby, and in the end, does it really matter what other people think on social media? Yeah, I was able to get past all of that, especially the older I get.”

It sounds as if Toulon was a real home from home for Armitage compared to what he experienced as a player with England and in the Premiership. What gives? Why did life in France from his late 20s and on into his mid-30s prove more compatible with him?

“A lot of things,” he suggested. “One thing that a lot of people don’t know is I actually grew up in France from 13 to 17, so I went through the set-up over there (in Nice) which made me a JIFF player so I could have played for France.

“I went through the whole set-up so I understood the league, the physicality, the way things worked over there. They didn’t work the same way in the Premiership and that is probably why I got in trouble a lot, but I just really enjoyed the aggressiveness, the way they are.

“For me, the French build the game up as entertainment, as if you are going to a concert, so the fans love it. You are going to a game, the game is at three o’clock, the gates open at 11, you go through that gate there is food, drinks, family stuff, it’s a real entertainment day. I really enjoyed that. When you play in these towns in France, everybody comes to the game.

“When you are living there and it’s a massive entertainment day and you are their entertainment, you have got to be prepared. Yes, it has got its downside if you are losing. As everybody knows in France if you are a foreigner over there and your team is losing, you are going to get some stick so you have got to be prepared for it. But if you are winning – and luckily the opportunity I got at Toulon and you are living near St Tropez, Nice, Monaco in this lovely area – life is so wonderful.”

One aspect that always stood out when Toulon were in their three-in-a-row Heineken Cup heyday was the incredibly spine-tingling, football-like reception their players received from their fans when stepping off the bus and taking the short walk into Stade Mayol. It was lit. “Amazing,” agreed Armitage, his face lighting up at the memory of feeling so loved and cherished every time around 90 minutes before kick-off.

“We would do our team run at the Mayol. Then we would get the bus back to the training ground and get the bus on purpose to the ground for the crowd. Everyone would stand up on the bus looking at each other just knowing that once that bus door opens the atmosphere, the partying, the flares, everything would kick off and it would be just an amazing moment. You didn’t get that at international level so to have that at your club every weekend was just an amazing feeling.”

The rapport is still infectious. Armitage was back in Toulon in April for the hall of fame induction of its 2013 European title-winning stars. “It was quite nice,” he enthused about his recent visit. “I still don’t have to pay for food in the restaurants. Whenever that happens that is always good.

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“To meet up with the boys, they flew a lot over from Australia, so Drew (Mitchell), Matt Giteau, Carl Hayman from New Zealand, and we all gathered there together which was a lovely thing to do because the French are not really used to doing things like that. Once they have used you it is game over.

“It was nice, that initiative. We enjoy what is going on at Toulon now they have got a new set-up there. When we were there the training facilities were probably the worst in the world and what they have done now is put a lot of money in and it’s amazing.

“A few of the fans came down when the boys were at the training ground showing it off to us, saying this is what you could have had but you didn’t. It was lovely to see them. They are still really passionate, still talking about the first time we won the European Cup, so it’s nice to see.”

Mention of niceness, it’s nice to hear the 39-year-old Armitage has a clean bill of health four years after he finished. “I’m still okay. You have got to remember I was a full-back, so I didn’t really get in much contact, physical trucking, and all that stuff. Yeah, my body is still feeling good,” he said, adding with a chuckle how he was never one for sports science and all the gadgets.

“I always say that to all the fitness coaches, ‘Stop putting a GPS on me, you don’t need to see how far I can run. It doesn’t matter’. All doing weights and that, I thought it was useless.”

Armitage will still have a rugby pitch run-around when he fancies it – for instance, he took part in the latest Wayne Barnes charity match. “That was nice, a little bit above touch apart from some guys feeling they needed to put some shots in, but it was a nice occasion. I really enjoy doing that kind of stuff.”

All the while, he is dabbling in grassroots coaching. He has his own academy, but he also spent the past year tutoring the backs at Dorking, the level four club that finished third in National 2 East. “I’m really enjoying it. I was doing my level three advanced coaching level with it. It was nice to get in there as an assistant coach just to see how things work.

“Just because you have played at a level doesn’t mean you can coach, so it was nice to get involved on a Tuesday, Thursday, and sometimes on a Saturday to see how that works and developing young kids so I really enjoyed it this year.

“We had just come up in the league and we finished third. It was very competitive with Blackheath, Worthing, these teams, and to finish third in my first year as a backs coach was amazing. It has really given me the confidence to push on now.

“I’m still involved a little bit around individual coaching, just developing with kids. I set up my academy where I help kids do extras, kicking, full-back stuff, working with back three players, just giving a little bit of knowledge that I learned over the years, so I really enjoy that. I also do some hospitality stuff at Twickenham. Just sticking around rugby really, just enjoying my time.”

  • Delon Armitage was speaking as Spabreaks.com, the UK’s leading spa booking and experience agency, launch their Men’s Health Week campaign Real Men Relax, to highlight the benefits of spa to men of all trades and backgrounds. For more information, visit www.spabreaks.com 
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