My professional career began in The North of England at the newly rebranded “Sale Sharks”. They were previously “Sale”. Went on to become just “Sharks”. The nomenclature isn’t particularly of relevance to this article.
We were always the underdogs, unfashionable, and we loved that. No one liked making the journey up the M6 to play us on cold, unforgiving Friday nights. It was inevitably raining. It's grim up North...
That unfashionable Northern club grew into a powerhouse, winning two European Shields and one Premiership Title whilst I was part of the team. World class players came to play; Jason Robinson and 'The Cave Man' Sebastian Chabal to name but two.
My life over that 7 year period was pretty rosey. I went to University in Manchester whilst playing Professionally for the princely sum of £5000 per annum. I actually made 24 1st XV appearances on £5k per year. Let’s say that I was good value…
The year Sale won the Premiership I was young player of the year and a mainstay in the team. I Captained England Under 21’s. I walked the Mancunian streets through the week as a student and ran out on weekends as a Shark. I was having a laugh basically. Slightly different to the Academy Factories of the present day where rugby is King and life takes a back seat.
Perhaps most importantly to this story I was comfortable, maybe too comfortable, as I was soon to discover.
As The Sharks form started to dip, so did my own. I had lost something of whatever had made me a useful part of that squad. By the start of the 2007 season I had been relegated to a bench player at best. Players that I thought I was better than were leap frogging me into the team. As I tried harder, I played worse. My coaches viewed me with tired eyes.
I suffered mentally and went into my shell. Professional Sport is an unforgiving mistress. It got so bad that I made my mind up to quit playing rugby. I had been successful academically and decided to go for some job interviews in finance. Despite my love for the game, I had pretty much given up.
I wasn't hugely upset by all of this. I was cold to the sport by now. I was offered a job by a financial giant in the city off the back of one interview. I was made to feel special again. I wanted out.
On a cold December evening I received a call from my Academy Coach. I could tell there was something up. There was something uncomfortable in his voice. Some small talk followed, I could tell he was stalling on what he'd called for.
"Erm... How do you feel about Paris?"
It transpired that Stade Francais Paris were interested in me. They needed a 2nd Row, immediately. They wanted an answer that night. Stade Francais isn't a small club, they were one of the richest in Europe. Sale were happy to be rid of me. My mind ticked over for a few seconds.
Screw it I thought, "Tell them I'll sign".
I got the call Friday. Sunday morning I flew into Paris with a duffle bag and not much else.
The team manager met me at the airport. Nice guy. He didn't speak much English, I spoke bad French. Perfect.
He handed me two sets of keys.
"Car" "Apartment". "Nice to meet you Christian Jour". Off he sloped.
I wasn't quite sure what had just happened.
What did happen for the next 8 months was the resurrection of my rugby career.
My apartment was a shoe box. It had a toilet positioned square in the middle of the front room. The cooker was a camping stove. But I didn't care. It was merely where I slept at night and woke in the morning.
Driving on the streets carried a death warrant, particularly on a moped. The traffic circle at L'Arc de Triomphe has 12 exits and approximately 8 lanes, all of them dangerous.
But training was followed by a walk around The Louvre, picnics on ponte neuf, strolling around Les Jardins de Luxembourg.
I was in a different world. The City of Light.
The club was owned by a flamboyantly gay man at the time. We wore neon pink kit with flowers printed on it. Dancing girls paraded the pitch from the Moulin Rouge. The team was packed full of global stars. The rugby wasn't perfect, but most important of all, it was fun again!
I trained in glorious sunshine. Ate French food. Drank French wine. My grasp of the language rapidly improved. It transpired that the French don't particularly like the English. I took a shine to the French!
On one of my first days at the club I was in the changing rooms minding my own business. Looking for some treatment from a physio if the truth be told. That was awkward enough by itself.
A tall, dark haired, mahogany tanned chap strolled in. Think a young David Hasselhoff and you're not far off. A French International. He nodded at me. I nodded back.
His strut told me he meant business. He had weighed up the Rosbif (The French call the English "Roast Beef" for some reason) sitting in the corner irritating the physio with his clumsy broken French. What level of intense training was this Adonis about to undertake? What could I learn? How do they do things here?
He proceeded to strip down to a pair of microscopic leopard print briefs and baby oiled himself from head to toe...
What followed was a strange public yoga session for two whilst the new English guy sat uncomfortably in the corner getting a calf massage. This continued in silence for fifteen minutes before he re-dressed and left without uttering a word. The physio shrugged in the way that only a Frenchman can.
I struggled to contain myself.
My girlfriend at the time (now wife) would fly over on the Friday evening after work and I would pick her up from the airport in my Renault Megane Scenic (Speaking of which was an incredible beast. Would you believe that you can fit 8 rugby players in it when needs be?!).
The Palace of Versailles
Looking back it's incredible the things we got to experience together as a young couple. We still have a picture hanging on the wall of the two of us sat on the steps at The Palace of Versailles. It is probably my favourite photo minus the ones of my children:
Time went on and my Anglo-French life continued. My game time was seriously limited due to a player previously thought dead being upgraded to alive, but my life experience was on overdrive. The squad were mostly composed of young players with a few French veterans dotted about.
The young guys were always interested to speak with me. The old guys weren't quite so friendly. I was a Rosbif after all, but I can't say it bothered me much.
Late Spring I received a call from Jim Mallinder who had just taken over at Northampton Saints. He wanted me to come back and play.
I had loved my time in France, but knew it was time to head back if I wanted my career to continue.
Nine years on, and over 200 Saints games later, I'm glad that I chose to return. But without my time in France I would undoubtedly have given up on the game that I loved and would be sat wearing an expensive suit in an office. It was a breath of fresh air that made me realise how much I loved having the sport in my life.
There is so much out there in the world to see and do.
In order to experience the highs you will likely experience some lows along the way!