In these days of safeguarding English talent — the Rugby Football Union’s foreign policy is one of talent self-containment — it is remarkable, almost negligent, that two players with the rare ability of David Strettle and Nick Abendanon will be lining up on the wings for France’s Clermont Auvergne against Saracens on Saturday. They are the Englishmen abroad, no longer available for international selection, but still playing some astonishing rugby.
This is Strettle’s second season, but Abendanon’s third and the Clermont crowd have welcomed them as two of their own. “It didn’t take David long to win over the crowd,” Abendanon tells ESPN. “I remember he scored a couple of tries early on and they loved him.
“It’s been wonderful having him here and he’s been great considering he is what, 37 or 38? Seriously though, hopefully I can be playing like him at 33.”
Nick Abendanon has found a home-from-home at Clermont Auvergne. AFP / THIERRY ZOCCOLAN
They have a miserly 16 Test caps between them, but boast a skillset which far outweighs their paucity of England recognition. It is baffling that Strettle last played for England in 2013 — Abendanon has just two caps dating back to 2007 — but both are happy in their own skin, enjoying life in Clermont-Ferrand. But even in the calm, windless air of the Auvergne, there is still that desire to prove past doubters wrong.
Abendanon had a brief run out for England in 2012, but that was a mere sniff of a chance in a non-capped match on South African soil where he was in the right place at the right time. He scored a hat-trick, but that still wasn’t enough, leaving him with just a pair of caps.
Ask any of Abendanon’s former Bath teammates about his ability, and they will put him in the pantheon of modern era greats to have run out at the Recreation Ground. His counter-attacking ability was ruthless, and his contortionist ability to find a gap prompted the opposition to become an involuntary spinning top.
But though he was excelling at Bath, there was to be no further England recognition and in 2014 he took up a contract with Clermont Auvergne, forgoing any international aspirations in the process.
Life is a little different for Abendanon these days but his form is still just as ruthless. English players have a habit of winning the European Player of the Year award, but three of the last four honoured have been playing outside of the Premiership. In 2016 it was Maro Itoje, but 2015 went to Abendanon, then playing predominantly at fullback. This term, he has been on the wing.
The positional shift coincided with the added responsibility of fatherhood. This week he has been navigating his 10-month daughter, Mieke, enduring a spate of chickenpox. Added to this time-juggling act are his French lessons. Having arrived in Clermont four years ago, he feels his French is up to scratch, but for some of the newer foreign players, it proves to be a millstone.
David Strettle and Nick Abendanon go through Friday’s captain’s run (Photo by Stu Forster/Getty Images)
“Sometimes on matchdays you have to do the three lots of box duties where there’s no one speaking English,” Abendanon says. “For some, that’s even more daunting than playing in front of the passionate fans.
“You have to learn. We have compulsory French lessons it takes a good amount of time.”
In a squad of nine different nationalities, Jono Gibbes, the forwards coach, delivers the English language side of communication — head coach Franck Azema the French — but playing at Stade Marcel Michelin, there are few stadiums in the world to rival their partisan, fully local support for the club.
It is one of the great stadiums and atmospheres in any sport as the Yellow Army drape from the stands, shouting their support for the team. It is in their DNA and for those on the field club stalwarts like Aurelien Rougerie channel their passion. In a large squad — it currently numbers 50 or so — those brought up on the Les Jaunards diet are the anchoring force to draw together the disparate bunch.
“I remember before the semifinal against Leinster in Lyon, and Rougerie and Davit Zirahashvili speak with passion before the big games with such passion and energy,” Abendanon said. “It gets you really thinking about how big an occasion it is, and help you prepare.”
Nick Abendanon claims the high ball against Leinster in the Champions Cup semifinal (Photo By Ramsey Cardy/Sportsfile via Getty Images)
Clermont have been here before. In 2015 they lost out to Toulon in the first Champions Cup final of the new era, but they are bored of being bridesmaids and are also continuing to make amends for last season’s dismal campaign where they failed to progress from the group stages.
“The team has learned the mistakes of last year’s pool stage where we didn’t play well. We are much more experienced now for the big games as a group. We are much better at coping with pressure which will be key against Saracens.
“This is why I came to France. To play in big finals like this. It is my second cup final and it’s special.”
For Strettle, he has the added incentive of playing against his former club — they will be friends reunited later in the summer when they attend his wedding — while Abendanon, who is now part of the Clermont furniture, will be looking to add Europe’s highest honour to his memorable time at Clermont.
“Saracens are the best team in Europe,” Abendanon says. “But we have the quality in our team, and if we stick to our game plan then we will be confident of winning. It could come down to one shot for Camille Lopez, a late drop-goal, or a late try-scoring opportunity. Whatever it is, we’ll take it. We are quietly confident.”
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Abendanon: The best fullback England never had
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