Midway through interviewing Nick Abendanon, he broke off the conversation momentarily. His neighbour wanted a word. For a minute or so, the former England full-back chatted away in fluent French. Vannes’ match against Grenoble had been postponed the previous weekend because of an outbreak of Covid and the solicitous neighbour wanted to check on the health of the squad.
A sign of the times, alas, but Abendanon’s slick French is a sign of how he has mastered a language that has defeated the majority of overseas players who come to France. “I’d always wanted to play in France and part of that was because I wanted to learn a new language,” he says. “My parents speak Dutch but they never bothered to speak it to me and that annoyed me. So I found the idea of playing rugby in another country and learning a language very attractive.”
Abendanon is one of those people capable of adapting to any new environment. It’s in his blood. He was born in South Africa in August 1986 to Dutch parents but before he had turned one the family relocated to England and the charming Cotswold village of Minchinhampton. He grew up the archetypal Englishman, educated at Cheltenham College and then joining Bath. He made his debut in the 2005-06 season, in a squad containing the likes of Matt Perry, David Flatman and Danny Grewcock; all long since retired.
When you are accepted by the players and the fans, it gives you the confidence to integrate and immersing yourself in the culture is easier. People are ready to open doors to you wherever you go.
Abendanon is still going strong 16 years later. After nine seasons, at Bath he signed for Clermont in 2014. He soon became a cult hero with the Yellow Army. I recall interviewing him on the terrace of a restaurant in Clermont in the summer of 2016 and being aware of the jaw-dropping reaction of passers-by at the sight of their hero.
“When I signed for Clermont, I knew I would be judged first on my performances on the field,” he says. “So during the off-season after finishing at Bath I trained as hard as I ever had to make sure I arrived in the best shape possible to give myself the best chance of getting off to a good start. That paid off. When you are accepted by the players and the fans, the Yellow Army, which is very important in a small place like Clermont, it gives you the confidence to integrate and therefore immersing yourself in the culture is easier. People are ready to open doors to you wherever you go.”
In his first season, Abendanon was voted European Player of the Year by the EPCR, admittedly scant consolation after Clermont lost the finals of the Champions Cup and the Top 14 in the space of three wretched weeks. Two years later, however, Abendanon helped Clermont lift the Top 14 shield, only the second title in their history. He deserved to leave the club with the salute of the adoring Yellow Army at the Stade Marcel-Michelin but it wasn’t to be; Covid curtailed the Top 14 last year and the only accolades to his six years of sterling service were those posted on social media.
Last summer was a complicated time to be considering one’s future. Europe was only slowly emerging from its first lockdown and rugby was wrestling with an economic crisis, the consequences of which will be felt within the sport for many seasons to come. With two young children Abendanon had to do what was right for them as much as for him. “London Irish and Leicester were both keen to sign me but they were offering one-year deals,” he says. “Vannes were the only team in France who were keen on me and they were offering a two-year deal. So we took the decision that rather than moving the family back to England for a year with not much security, we would continue the adventure in France with Vannes.”
It was, says Abendanon, as much a lifestyle decision as a rugby one. “Funnily enough I didn’t come and see Vannes before signing,” he says. “It was all done fairly quickly. We had to sell our place in Clermont and it’s not just down the road so we didn’t have time to come and visit. When I signed and started training that was the first time I’d been to the club.”
Vannes is a gorgeous part of France. A port in Brittany, its old town has cobbled streets and half-timber houses, while the harbour has bars and restaurants. The stadium, La Rabine, is a short walk from the harbour, ideally situated for the fans who fancy a pre- and post-match pint of cider. Abendanon admits he was “hesitant” to sign for Vannes. In a sense it was an acceptance of his fading physical powers. He had played for England and two of Europe’s most illustrious clubs and here he was ending his days in the French Second Division.
My body is pretty average at the moment and my speed is not what it was, so I’m having to rely a lot more on experience than the raw talent I used to have.
A prouder man might have spurned the approach of Vannes but Abendanon has the honesty to admit that time catches up with everyone, no matter how good they were in their prime. “The expectation is one thing I’ve found a little harder this year,” he says. “I’ve known for the past couple of years that I’m not the same player that I was when I arrived at Clermont. My body is pretty average at the moment and my speed is not what it was, so I’m having to rely a lot more on experience than the raw talent I used to have. That’s hard. You have a name and with it comes an expectation, but I know I’m not going to be able to live up to what people want to see because I’m not as good a rugby player as I used to be. It takes longer to recover, the aches and pains makes every day a lot more of a struggle…and I can definitely say that next year will be my last because my body won’t be able to go on any longer than that.”
Vannes aren’t stupid. They know that when you sign a 34-year-old full-back, he’s not going to be at the height of his powers. But they also knew of Abendanon’s reputation: one of the most astute footballers in the sport, intelligent, committed and a great ‘team man’. It was a punt, nonetheless, but one that has paid off. Vannes and Perpignan are the runaway leaders of the ProD2 and it will be one of that pair that is promoted to the Top 14 at the end of this season. Abendanon, the old man of the team, has made 13 starts and his experience has been crucial in helping the talented young French players such as Pierre Popelin and Rémi Picquette.
“I’ll be honest, I didn’t know much about Vannes,” he says. “I didn’t watch any of ProD2 games when I was at Clermont so it was all new to me. I knew they were very ambitious but more a middle-table team than one competing for the title, but it has definitely exceeded my expectations. It has been a breath of fresh air getting involved with a new club and a new competition, and it has been great fun and very enjoyable.”
Vannes are the only professional club in Brittany, a region that has always been more football than rugby. Their nearest rugby rival is La Rochelle, 150 miles south, which means Vannes have little competition when it comes to attracting supporters and sponsors. Their president, Olivier Cloarec, has a project entitled ‘Ambition 2023’, the year he envisages Vannes playing in the Top 14. They could be two seasons ahead of schedule.
We are going in the right direction. We have a great fan base and we are one of the few Pro D2 clubs to make a profit. But obviously the Top 14 is a different beast to the Pro D2.
Abendanon believes it would be better if the club stuck to the president’s timetable. “I think if we went up this year it would be a year too early,” he says. “The infrastructure is not in place at the moment. We’ve got planning permission for a new training centre and that looks great but it will take a year to build. We are going in the right direction. We have a great fan base and we are one of the few ProD2 clubs to make a profit. But obviously the Top 14 is a different beast to the ProD2, where you get a week off every four weeks. Playing every week would take its toll on us and we would need a lot of reinforcements over the summer.”
The main difference, according to Abendanon, between the Top 14 and the ProD2 is the skill level. “That leads to things such as the ball not staying in play as long as it does in the Top 14, so the game is not as fast and fluid. But the work ethic is comparable to the Top 14 if not a little more,” he says.
It hasn’t helped Vannes’ cause that La Rochelle have signed Popelin and Picquette for next season and other Top 14 clubs will doubtless be sniffing around this summer, attracted by the success that Vannes have enjoyed.
At least Vannes know that Abendanon won’t be going anywhere in the next 12 months, other than the occasional pleasure cruise on the sea. He has just obtained his boat licence and he and his wife have also bought an old house that requires renovation. They intend to move back to England in the summer of 2022 but they want a house to which they can return on holidays.
As for the future, Abendanon has fingers in a few pies. He has a degree in leadership management, owns some property and has invested in a company called Paepiro, an online rugby coaching platform. One thing he won’t do is coach. “Becoming a coach used to appeal when I was young,” he says. “But having seen the life of a coach, it’s not something that takes my fancy. They work very hard, I’ve huge respect for them, but they are away from their families most weekends.”
Few Anglophone players have enjoyed as much success in France as Abendanon. Even fewer have earned as much respect. He’s held in such regard not just because of what he has achieved on the pitch but how he conducts himself off it. Un bon gars, as the French might say.
More stories from Gavin Mortimer
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