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FEATURE How Jack Nowell came good at La Rochelle

How Jack Nowell came good at La Rochelle
4 weeks ago

At the midway point of this season, France’s rugby paper, Midi Olympique, ran an eye over the Tops and the Flops of the big summer signings. Among the success stories was Sam Simmonds, who since joining Montpellier from Exeter, had “established himself as a key member of the team”.

Listed among the flops was Simmonds’ old team-mate at Sandy Park, Jack Nowell, whose decision to sign for La Rochelle looked like a mistake. “What’s happened to the fast, robust Jack Nowell, who knew exactly how to break tackles and score tries?” wondered Midi Olympique, which drew attention to the fact he was still try-less after 10 matches. “He clearly seems to lack gas…. [and] is now struggling to make an impact.”

The second half of the season has not been easy for Simmonds as Montpellier steadily came apart at the seams, finishing one place off the bottom of the Top 14. That meant a play-off against Grenoble, runners-up in the ProD2, for a place in next season’s top flight.

Montpellier won the prize, just, kicking a late penalty for a 20-18 victory. Twenty-four hours later the coaching staff were sacked in what one of them called a ‘putsch’. Even by Montpellier’s chaotic standards, it’s been some season: three head coaches in nine months.

Jack Nowell
Nowell endured a difficult start to his La Rochelle career, only scoring his first try in May (Photo Sam Barnes/Sportsfile via Getty Images)

Simmonds, who agreed terms with Montpellier a few weeks after they had been crowned 2022 Top 14 champions, may wonder from time to time what he’s got himself into.

Nowell, on the other hand, has gone in the other direction. At the mid-point of the regular season, La Rochelle were eighth, outside the top six qualification zone. But the Atlantic coast club have finished strongly, coming good in the late spring as the business end of the Top 14 loomed. Instrumental in their resurgence has been Nowell.

He’s back in the pages of Midi Olympique, only now he’s being praised and not panned. Nowell finally dotted down for La Rochelle against Pau on 18 May. His delight and that of his team-mates was evident. “I find this image of all the players congratulating him very powerful,” said Rémi Talès, La Rochelle’s assistant coach. “Everyone regretted that he couldn’t score. Now he has. I’m sure it will do him a lot of good for the rest of the season.”

From the moment the Englishman arrived at La Rochelle, he had impressed all the staff and squad with his attitude and his talent. No one doubted he would come good in the end.

It did. Nowell got a second the following week in the 31-31 draw away at Toulouse, and a third came on the final day of the regular season in the defeat of Racing 92. Nowell didn’t score in the 34-29 win at Toulon in the Top 14 quarter-final last weekend, but he looked sharp, and it was his quick-thinking in taking an impromptu line-out that led to the try from Dillyn Leyds.

In an article headlined ‘Joyeux Nowell’ (a pun on Joyeux Noel, ‘Happy Christmas’ in French), Midi Olympique quoted Sebastien Boboul, La Rochelle’s attack coach, saying of Nowell: “He’s gifted, a real joy to behold and a complete professional.”

Boboul said that from the moment the Englishman arrived at La Rochelle, he had impressed all the staff and squad with his attitude and his talent. No one doubted he would come good in the end. As one of the coaches had put it in March: “Give him time to find his feet because he’s discovering a new culture, a new championship, after 10 years at Exeter.”

Jack Nowell
Nowell was in prime form as La Rochelle earned an impressive draw at Toulouse earlier this month (Photo Valentine Chapuis/AFP via Getty Images)

There were other reasons why it took time for Nowell to bed down at his new club. He started the season in the centre before being moved to his favoured position of wing. In between he broke his hand in December and was sidelined for the first two months of 2024.

One of the matches Nowell missed was La Rochelle’s 29-8 home victory over Toulouse, the confrontation that has become the clash of the French heavyweights since 2019.

In that time La Rochelle have won two European Champions Cup titles (2022 and 2023), as have Toulouse (2021 and 2024). The difference is that domestically Toulouse dominate.

They have won three of the last five Top 14 championships, and in 2021 and 2023 they did so by beating La Rochelle in the final. Toulouse also defeated La Rochelle in the final of the 2021 Champions Cup.

Romain Ntamack
Romain Ntamack’s stunning late try saw Toulouse pip La Rochelle 29-26 in last season’s Top 14 final (Photo Julien De Rosa/AFP via Getty Images)

Toulouse are La Rochelle’s bogey team, and Nowell is one of the very few in the squad who hasn’t experienced that losing feeling against Ugo Mola’s side. His try in the 31-31 draw at the start of this month helped La Rochelle become the only Top 14 side this season not to lose at Toulouse.

That result – admittedly against an under-strength Toulouse – was nothing compared to last week’s away win in Toulon in the quarter-finals. It was a far more comfortable win than the 34-29 scoreline suggests; the visitors were leading 34-15 going into the final quarter but lost their concentration, getting two yellow cards and enabling Toulon to score two late tries that masked what a one-sided contest it had been until then.

Head coach Ronan O’Gara was asked after the Toulon win what message he’d given to the players now they were in the semi-finals. “No message,” he said. “They spoke on the pitch. No point in adding anything.”

Nonetheless, La Rochelle are the underdogs for Friday’s semi-final against Toulouse in Bordeaux. Toulouse qualified automatically for the semis having finished top of the regular season, so they spent last weekend in a warm-weather camp in Portugal preparing themselves for another showdown with Les Jaune et Noir.

Nowell was one of only a small number of players recruited by La Rochelle last summer. Most were experienced campaigners: the Kiwi utility back Ihaia West, French international flanker Judicaël Cancoriet and scrum-half Teddy Iribaren. They were brought for their big game savoir-faire, and they’re delivering when it matters.

Head coach Ronan O’Gara was asked after the Toulon win what message he’d given to the players now they were in the semi-finals. “No message,” he said. “They spoke on the pitch. No point in adding anything.”

Earlier this year Nowell extended his contract at the Stade Marcel-Deflandre until 2027. He and his family love their new life in France.

So does another English Jack: Jack Willis of Toulouse. He and Nowell will meet on Friday in Bordeaux, a couple of Brits abroad not doing too badly for themselves.

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