Two French legends stand on the verge of a decade old Top14 record
The name Laurent Arbo is probably not one many rugby fans outside France will recognise.
He did not grace the international scene as a player, making his first appearance in Les Bleus’ kit as a trainer in 2011 ahead of the World Cup in New Zealand, and four years after he had laced up his boots in anger for the final time.
His domestic career bears all the hallmarks of an honest, long-serving journeyman. It ran from the early years of professionalism in 1991, when the Top 14 was the Top 16, until 2007, and included spells at Perpignan, Brive, Pau, Castres Olympique, and Montpellier.
Yet in those 16 years of service in the French top flight, he set a record that still stands today. On November 17, 2006, in an otherwise unremarkable match between Montpellier and Stade Francais, Arbo scored his 100th try in French top-flight rugby.
No player in the professional era in France has touched down more times. Only two current players are even close. And both are about to enter what looks set to be their final seasons.
The 36-year-old Vincent Clerc scored most of his 98 domestic tries during a 14-season spell with Toulouse, before heading to the south coast to join Toulon at the start of last season on a one-year deal.
After just three matches in Toulon colours, a ruptured achilles ended his campaign in January. That injury came close to ending Clerc’s career, when he was three touchdowns shy of a new French scoring record. He finally re-signed with Toulon in early July for one more season, having been a visitor to the local job centre for a few weeks after his contract ended.
Arbo believes Clerc is the player to break his long-standing mark. “I am a little proud of this record,” he told French rugby website Rugbyrama in May. “I was never the toughest player, but I managed to get through some stretched defences.
“But … Vincent Clerc had an international career that I did not have, injuries that he had to come back from. To last so long, I have to raise my hat to him. And I think he’ll come back again: he has the mind for it.”
Arbo’s prediction has come true – Clerc has come back. But he will have to make the most of what are likely to be limited chances, with Josua Tuisova, Chris Ashton and Hugo Bonneval likely to dominate back-three selection.
And he has a rival. In January, one-club man Aurélien Rougerie signed a contract extension that keeps him at Clermont for another year. The centre has 95 domestic tries to his name, and may have a few more chances than Clerc to reach his century-plus-one if he stays fit.
Arbo admits his record would have fallen already if either of these two players had not enjoyed lengthy international careers. Clerc has 34 international tries in 67 appearances in France colours, while and Rougerie has 23 from 76 internationals, which means their career totals including internationals leave Arbo’s for dust. And who knows what their numbers would have been had they remained injury free?
But, for now Arbo remains the only player to have scored 100 tries in professional domestic rugby in France. The question is: for how much longer?
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