Jack Willis’s first encounter with Antoine Dupont was not an enjoyable one. He got hammered. He and the rest of the England U20 side that travelled to Pau in 2016 for their U20 Six Nations fixture.
Damien Penaud scored a hat-trick of tries in the 41-17 thrashing, part of a French side that included several other players who have gone on to full honours, including Anthony Jelonch, Peato Mauvaka, Arthur Retière and Anthony Belleau.
Willis recalled that match but over the passage of time the names of his youthful French opponents had faded from his memory. “Wow!” he exclaimed on being told he had first crossed paths with Dupont and the others all those years ago. “That’s crazy. I didn’t realise those guys were playing.”
The second time Willis and Dupont met on the international stage was at Twickenham in March; this time it was another chastening experience for the Englishman: 53-10. Déjà vu, as the French might say.
Fortunately for the former Wasps flanker, these days he spends most of the time on the same side as Dupont, generally acknowledged to be the world’s top talent in 2023. The same goes for Jelonch, Mauvaka, and Retière, members of the Toulouse squad that Willis joined in November last year.
That was a short-term deal, snapped up by the French club after Wasps folded, but the 26-year-old Willis has recently signed a new three-year contract with Toulouse, pledging the prime years of his career to them.
Everyone seems delighted. Willis has been an instant hit with the fans, who, compared to other French clubs, don’t see many Englishmen settle in their neck of the woods. The last was Tony Flood, in 2014, and before him Rob Andrew back in the amateur era.
Not that there has ever been anything very amateur about Toulouse. They’re a well-managed, well-organised and well-run club; one thing’s for sure, Willis won’t have to worry about this club going bust.
As for Willis, he’s having the time of his life in the south of France. Asked how he’s made the transition from Wasps to Toulouse seem so effortless, he replies: “I think it probably comes down to what a great club I’m at. I loved my time at Wasps and probably if everything that has happened hadn’t happened I would have finished my career there, playing with my brother (Tom Willis moved to Bordeaux but will join Saracens in the summer) and my mates. But I had to look elsewhere and I couldn’t be happier where I have ended up.”
In a recent podcast with James Haskell – an old teammate – and Alex Payne, Willis went into detail about that never-to-be-forgotten day when Wasps were extinguished as a professional entity. It was not an easy listen. Players, whatever their level, deserve a lot more respect. “It will leave some scars but Toulouse have reaffirmed my faith in rugby,” says Willis. “What I love about Toulouse is the way they look after the lads post-rugby. You’ll find ex-players working in the office or with the coaches. That’s the sign of a proper club, that looks out for you.”
What I’m learning is that the French like to enjoy their food, their break, take their rest, and then they go back to work., Even if you have only got 45 mins left to do [of training], they want that lunch break. It’s quite a change.
There have been challenges to overcome. Twenty two miles of water separate England and France at their narrowest point but the difference is many aspects of their respective cultures are huge. “Yes, there are differences but you just accept them,” says Willis. “One thing that blew my mind was the long lunch breaks. We finish about 12 and then we have about three hours till we come back in. Then we train until about six.”
He laughs. “But what I’m learning is that the French like to enjoy their food, their break, take their rest, and then they go back to work., Even if you have only got 45 mins left to do [of training], they want that lunch break. It’s quite a change.”
It’s a change that he has happily embraced, which is the key to any British player making a success of his time in France. Vive la difference!
He’s also wrestling with the language as if it were an opposition flanker at the breakdown. “The language is a challenge, I can’t lie,” he says. “It is difficult but I am trying my best. There are times when you don’t know what to say because you aren’t fluent and therefore you can’t speak in that situation. But I’m enjoying it.”
When he signed his new deal, Willis insisted on making a short video in French in which he thanked the club and the fans for making him and his wife, Megan, so welcome. It went down a storm with the fans. At this rate Willis is going to achieve the cult status in Toulouse of another legendary foreign flanker, the Irishman Trevor Brennan, who loved it so much he stayed, and now watches his son, Josh, play each week for Toulouse.
We had a slightly too big stadium at the Ricoh for the Premiership fan bases, and it never really felt full. Whereas you come here and there are 20,000 seats and you never see an empty one at a home game. We’ve got a special fan base.
What with his Six Nations commitments with England and the Champions Cup fixtures, Willis has only played two Top 14 matches on the road – against Racing 92 in Paris and against Lyon. His other four league matches have been at home, and he’s relished every one. “With the greatest respect to Wasps, I think that’s the biggest difference,” he says, when asked to compare the Premiership and the Top 14. “We had a slightly too big stadium at the Ricoh for the Premiership fan bases, and it never really felt full. Whereas you come here and there are 20,000 seats and you never see an empty one at a home game. We’ve got a special fan base.”
Who wouldn’t want to come and watch Toulouse? There’s quality across the board, nowhere more so than the back-row where Willis is jostling for selection alongside French internationals Anthony Jelonch (currently sidelined with a knee injury), François Cros and Thibaud Flament, the veteran Springbok Rynhardt Elstadt and the promising young duo of Théo Ntamack and Alexandre Roumat, whose fathers were distinguishedBleus.
Has he noticed any significant differences between an English loose forward and a French one, specifically a Toulouse one? “You see the way they play in attack and in space,” says Willis. “When we make a line break, one of them is always trailing the line break. They have got the anticipation down to a tee. And their ball skills in and around the contact are really impressive, their off-load ability. That is something that in training I’m working on. Something else I have noticed is just how physical the Top 14 is.”
The strength of Toulouse, why they are sitting pretty at the summit of the Top 14 and this Saturday face Leinster in the semi-final of the Champions Cup, is their potent blend of physicality and artistry. Being in such an environment is bringing on aspects of Willis’ game. “Toulouse like to play with the ball and play to space as soon as we can,” he explains. “To try and create opportunities in attack from anywhere, really. And that’s what I’ve tried to work on, my skill level, my offload level, to be able to add to that. I don’t just want to add defensively, I want to develop my attacking game and be a big part of that attacking flow.”
He already seems to be developing an understanding with Dupont, often on his shoulder as the scrum-half snipes and probes. “When you have got players of Dupont’s quality, as we do throughout the team, you have to try and start to anticipate where they are going,” says Willis. “Look at the way they play because they create space. If you’re in and around that it’s only going to benefit you, playing off the back of it.”
Commit to the language, even if you are making mistakes. The boys definitely respect you more for it, and it’s also a cool life skill to have, so try your best on that front. Then just enjoy the culture and the lifestyle out here.
If Willis has landed on his feet at Toulouse, then he deserves it because he’s overcome some serious setbacks in his career. He’s suffered two serious knee injuries – in 2018 and 2021 – and seen his boyhood club go bust. “I think the two injuries did help me deal with what happened at Wasps,” he reflects. “Because going through the injuries made me grateful for being out on the rugby pitch, and I made sure I savoured every moment. Looking back I’m happy that I did savour those moments playing with my brother and my mates. I enjoyed every minute of it at Wasps.
“It’s been hard to see it all torn apart, and it’s tough to take knowing there is no going back to that. I may never play with my brother or those lads again. It is tough but I’m equally excited about what is to come at Toulouse. I feel that I’ve ended up at a great spot and I’m very grateful.”
Next season Willis will bump into several familiar faces in France, as several English players make the switch this summer from the Premiership to the Top 14. Asked what one piece of advice he would give to his compatriots, Willis replies without hesitation: “Commit to the language, even if you are making mistakes. The boys definitely respect you more for it, and it’s also a cool life skill to have, so try your best on that front. Then just enjoy the culture and the lifestyle out here.”
Willis is, and in return Toulouse have taken the Englishman to their hearts.
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