Unsung. Under-used. Unselected. Every once in a while there is a player who reaches the end of their career and you wonder just how it came to pass that they didn’t get more international recognition. And as you ponder their omission, the disbelief blossoms into a perplexity bordering on outrage. And so it is with one South Africa-born Dutchman, who found his true rugby home in France and picked up just two England caps along the way.
Nick Abendanon retires this month, 17 years after he first began tormenting defences with his light-footed brand of audacious, insouciant counter-attack. A torn bicep is his latest malady and the full-back/winger knows his body is done. “I’ve not been able to stay injury-free and play consecutive matches,” he says of his final season at Pro D2 side Vannes. “It’s my body sending me a message.”
Abendanon, now 36, was a player sending messages all his life. Sadly for England, many coaches chose not to listen.
When Abendanon packed his bags and left Bath in 2014 to head to Clermont Auvergne, there was an almost immediate incomprehension from the French locals that this flaxen-haired flyer wasn’t starting for England. “Abendanon, la crème anglaise de Clermont!” cried one French publication, putting the Englishman on its front cover.
It was a cri de coeur that has persisted. Abendanon’s time in France has been a mutually fulfilling love affair. And it begs a question: what if English rugby, and the England team in particular, had managed to get out of Abendanon what the French game has been able to?
A self-confessed cavalier rather than a pragmatist, Abendanon’s attacking play was natural, easy, instinctive, like an animal reacting to a situation with both body and mind in immediate concert. He was bold and brave, sometimes to the point of recklessness. Fielding the ball in the backfield, his first reaction would invariably be to run, run, run.
Very Gallic, with a smack of Serge Blanco about him. No wonder he felt most at home in France and that the French quickly claimed him as one of their own: a Baudelaire of the rugby field, spinning sporting stanzas with a dip of the shoulder and a flourish of the boot.
At the end of his first season in Clermont Ferrand, Abendanon was named European Player of the Year for his displays in the Champions Cup. In one season and in just one competition. Abendanon compiled enough highlights for a whole career: a rip on George Pisi followed by a length-of-field sprint against Northampton; multiple defence-puncturing lines in which he cut back against the grain; an outrageous try-scoring chip-and-collect in the final. He bagged a truck-load of tries in European rugby in France, building on what he had begun in England; his try in the final of the European Challenge Cup in 2008 was the last time that Bath won a major trophy.
Bath and former England scrum coach Neal Hatley knows Abendanon well from their time at The Rec together. Hatley is openly incredulous that Abendanon never built on his two caps for England, both received in 2007 in the build-up to the World Cup. Alongside his natural talent on the field, it is Abendanon’s character that most impressed itself upon Hatley.
“I rate Nick Abendanon as a person first and foremost, and I loved working with him,” he says. “When I came here, Bendy had been a permanent fixture for so long and all of a sudden Anthony Watson, Horacio Agulla and Semesa Rokoduguni turned up, and probably for the first time ever Bendy was under massive pressure just to keep his place.
I think he showed big nuts to step out of his comfort zone where he’d been his whole life. We offered him a contract, but he went to Clermont and then to become European Player of the Year.
“He got dropped for five or six weeks and I can see it now, it hit him hard. Anthony Watson was flying at full-back and we went down to Sarries in an A League game. Bendy was playing in it and we wanted to make him captain and he said no, let Kane Palma-Newport stay captain, as he had been for a few weeks. And Bendy just flew into it like a Test match. I think him having been here for so long and then being challenged brought out the absolute best in Nick. I mean, he was tough. I remember that game against Leicester here when the Tuilagis battered him from pillar to post and he just kept bouncing up and going again.”
Oh yes, that match. Ouch. Who, having seen that game in March 2011, could forget it? At the hands of Manu and Alesana, Abendanon bore the brunt of wave after wave of Tuilagi ferocity. When co-commentator Ben Kay said on air “Fetch that man a pair of slippers” as Abendanon trudged off, it was said with genuine admiration. It was a match that captured Abendanon’s fearlessness and courage, despite him being of comparatively diminutive frame. It was such moments that prompted Danny Grewcock, a former team-mate at Bath and not a man given to dishing out praise lightly, to assert recently that Abendanon was one of the most under-rated players of his generation.
Although it was a blow to his plans as a coach, Hatley happily applauds Abendanon’s decision to head to the Top 14 in 2014. “Credit to him, I think Nick realised he was at that point in his career where he needed a change. I think he showed big nuts to step out of his comfort zone where he’d been his whole life. We offered him a contract, but he went to Clermont and then to become European Player of the Year and do what he did I thought was superb.
“He’s had an absolutely amazing career. When you look back at it you probably go, how did he not get more caps for England? Because he led the Premiership for a long time.
“People probably look at him and remember his running skills but he was a tough defender, kicked the ball a long way, he was a great fullback and a pleasure to work with. When we played Clermont here a couple of years ago his old man was down in a half-Bath, half-Clermont blazer – the family’s connection to the club is great.”
Abendanon’s rare talent was identified when he was not long out of Cheltenham College. In his excellent autobiographical book Fringes, which documents the life of a journeyman rugby pro who never quite makes it into the top leagues, Ben Mercer captures Abendanon’s early bewitching precocity.
“There are however some people who are just better than everyone else,” writes Mercer. “Nick Abendanon turned up to Bath academy pre-season training relatively unheralded. He had played age group England rugby but wasn’t known by the rest of us when he wandered in. We trained for a week and then went to play in the Maidenhead 7s. Not the most glamorous occasion that he ever graced.
He proceeded to take his top off, put on his designer sunglasses and lie down on his towel with his hands behind his head to soak him some rays.
“We played the first game, won and then wandered over to our little base to stretch and recover. He proceeded to take his top off, put on his designer sunglasses and lie down on his towel with his hands behind his head to soak him some rays. This seemed like a slightly odd thing to do and could have lead to some negative opinions forming about his character.
“He spent the rest of the day shredding defences and was presented with the player of the tournament trophy after we won the final. The next weekend he played for the u19s and scored 17 points. Then on the Monday he was chucked on the wing in the A League and scored 2 tries. He was never seen in academy training again and went on to be named European Player of the Year later in his career.”
The 2006-07 season was Abendanon’s breakthrough year at Bath. On the back of that form he was picked to play against South Africa and France in 2007, but just missed out on being picked for that year’s World Cup. A missed tackle on Sebastien Chabal has been cited by some as a reason for his omission, but Abendanon did go on to receive an injury call up in the week leading up to the final. Following that, years playing for the second-string England Saxons was Abendanon’s international lot. Despite his prolific try-scoring, more full caps never came, with the likes of Delon Armitage, Mike Brown and Ben Foden being preferred by England.
Stephen Meehan arrived as coach at Bath just as Abendanon was starting to light up the Premiership. It was a meeting of minds, with both men instinctively favouring heads-up, all-court, attacking rugby over formula and dry statistics.
“Nick was a young guy and I was a young coach at that stage too,” recalls Meehan. “He was without fear, which I loved and still do love about young players. He was prepared to have a crack and do the best he could.
“He played without fear or pressure and just played it the way he wanted to. It was the way I like to see the game played. The back three we had could all run with that approach, especially with Joe Maddock and Matt Banahan alongside him. The three of them formed a bloody good trio.
“It was perfect timing for him. The truth of the matter is that if you want to play whatever style of rugby you want to play, forget the stats. It’s about what you want to do and what the team wants to do. We ignored the trends and the stats and just went about playing footy and it suited what Nick wanted to do. I was really fortunate to be involved with people like him, Maddock, Banahan and others. Those years at Bath will always stay with me.
Nick had a beautiful sense of balance. His attacking skills were probably better than a lot of players who played a lot more Test rugby.
“I remember one game against London Irish at The Rec. Nick got the ball on his own tryline or behind it and stepped past Bob Casey, which in itself wasn’t that remarkable as Bob was near the end of his playing career at that point and his knees were shot. But Nick then flew up and linked up with all these different players before scoring in the corner. It was a 100m try. It was just marvellous to be a part of it.
“Nick had a beautiful sense of balance. His attacking skills were probably better than a lot of players who played a lot more Test rugby. But there were other aspects of his game that weren’t regarded as being what the international coaches wanted. Potentially, he could have played more international rugby. There were a lot of very good full-backs and that’s happened to a lot of players. If he had had an easier way into international rugby he could certainly have played more Tests.”
The ”other aspects” of his game that Meehan refers to included a reputation for the occasional errant kick, and a tendency to not play as pragmatically as might be expected with the clock either in or close to the red. Such were the reasons why Abendanon was described in the Daily Mail in 2015 as a “flawed genius” who did not deserve to be in that year’s World Cup squad. His modest size also created a lingering perception that his tackling was not up to the job at Test level.
It was a view on his defending that certainly wasn’t shared by all. The former Bath chief executive Nick Blofield once came bounding up to me after a narrow win over Northampton, in which Abendanon had saved the day by tracking back diagonally and making an implausible-seeming decisive tackle. “Did you see Bendy?” beamed Blofeld. “Like an Exocet missile!”
But for all his crowd-pleasing exploits in the Premiership, his longevity in the European club game is something that Abendanon attributes to his move over the Channel. For him it was a revitalising move. After 207 games for Bath in close to a decade, the Premiership was grinding him down.
And his message to English players back home is exactly what you would expect from one who has flourished overseas.
“I may be biased, but the time I’ve spent here in France – the experiences, the spectacles, the matches, the lifestyle – is worlds apart from what I was experiencing in England,” says Abendanon from his rented home in Vannes, breaking off occasionally to converse with the maintenance man in perfect French. “Bath is my childhood club and it will always have a special place for me. But in France everything has been on a much bigger scale. There is a lot more passion. The matchday spectacle is more enjoyable. Big games feel more like a Test match. You just don’t get those playing in the Premiership.
I would look to get some experience and come out to France. Broaden your horizons and experience a new culture. I’m not sure I would have had the mental strength to keep going in the Premiership.
“I would highly recommend every player to come over for at least a couple of years. Look at Zach Mercer, and now he wants to go back to play for England which is understandable. But if you’re a player waiting for a chance to get international experience, I would look to get some experience and come out to France. Broaden your horizons and experience a new culture. I’m not sure I would have had the mental strength to keep going in the Premiership. It really is a grind. It becomes a bit of a drug that you want to get into these big games. It’s given me so much motivation.”
If England had been able to properly harness Abendanon’s natural flair and leadership – he is spoken of highly as a dressing room leader in France and has been joint-captain at Vannes during the final contract of his career – then the life of Nick Abendanon and indeed England rugby could have been so very different. And his impact on French rugby is not ending with his retirement as a player. He has been steadily acquiring his French coaching badges in Paris in recent months and is set to join Bayonne as skills coach next season. Abendanon harbours hopes of remaining in France and stepping up to attack coach and then potentially other senior roles.
Such is the success of his French sojourn that you wouldn’t bet against him applying his rugby intelligence to the French game’s benefit and the English game’s detriment. Even from the sidelines, his rugby acumen could undo English sides in European competitions.
Abendanon, la crème anglaise, is likely to continue to sweeten rugby across the pitches of France. That England missed out on savouring the full flavours of this piquant rugby talent should leave a sour taste for those north of the Channel.
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