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French Rugby Column September 1 || By: Howard Johnson

April 24, 2020 2 min read

I was watching an old re-run of ‘The Fast Show’ at the weekend and
decided that I should have nicked the name of one of the iconic
comedy show’s main characters, Unlucky Alf, for myself. Why?
Because when the Jonny Wilkinson bandwagon rolled into my home
town of Albi, where should I be but on holiday in Spain, a good few
hundred miles from home? Of course Wilko duly slotted five out of
seven penalties and helped his side Toulon to a 15-9 win. They remain
just one of three clubs – the others being Clermont and Castres – who
have yet to lose after Round Three of this season’s Top 14 league. And
I missed it all. As Alf himself would say, ‘Bugger!’.

It would have made for a fun evening with my Albi-loving pals to point
out to them what a truly world class player looks like. After all, you
have to take any opportunity to have a little light-hearted poke at
French rugby, don’t you? But while Jonny is clearly the darling of the
Toulon public, the word from those who watched a frankly
unremarkable game here on Saturday night is that the real star of the
Toulon show wasn’t an Englishman after all, but rather Juan-Martin
Fernandez-Lobbe. The Argentinean Number 8 followed his former Sale
Sharks coach Philippe Saint-André down from Sale to Toulon and has
apparently quickly found his sea legs on the French south coast.
Fernandez-Lobbe earned rave reports from my spies at Albi and
according to them he could easily be the revelation of the domestic
season – which might put a spanner in the works of Racing Metro. The
newly-promoted Paris outfit have bet the farm on signing Sebastien
Chabal, France’s most recognisable ‘Rugbyman’, in order to up their
profile. But Fernandez-Lobbe has a history of outshining The Caveman
at Sale, so you’d have to be a very patriotic Frenchman indeed if you
were to bet against it happening again. Still, Racing will be more than
happy to have drawn 10,000 spectators to the Stade Yves du Manoir
for their game against Bayonne. After all, Stade Francais were playing
just down the road and at the same time – and while this doesn’t say
much for the bloke who organises the fixtures, it would seem to
indicate that Chabal-mania is already having a wee bit of an effect,
especially since Racing won 18-9.

As media-friendly as Chabal may be, though, not even he had the
heavyweight punch to match up to the weekend’s biggest game that
saw Champions Perpignan take on Stade Toulousain. Nice to see my
old pal Perry Freshwater managing a full 70 minutes in the front row in
blazing Catalan heat at the ripe old age of 36. Pezza’s appetite for the
game is an example to all aspiring rugby players and nobody would
have been more delighted than him to have been part of a USAP
victory by 17 points to 15 in a game that was every bit as tight and
nail-biting as we all expected it to be.

The Top 14 has already produced some great, open encounters and it
looks like we can expect a real feast of rugby in the coming weeks and
months. Better not plan any more holidays in Spain just yet, then…