Perpignan prop Perry Freshwater is finally retiring from top flight rugby at age
38. Rugby Rugby's Howard Johnson salutes an extraordinary player…
How on earth can a pro rugby player still be competing in the front row of
France's notoriously tough Top 14 at almost 39 years of age?
Rugby Rugby's Howard Johnson salutes Perry Freshwater's remarkable achievement.
On Saturday I drove the three and a half hours from Chez Johnson down to
Perpignan to witness what had the potential to be a nail-gnawing French Top
14 relegation crunch match between Perpignan and Bayonne. Both teams,
expected to be strong competitors at the top end of the table at the start of
the season, have endured frankly disastrous campaigns after both setting out
with lofty ambitions. But after a whopping great 47-9 spanking at the hands of
the home side it's Bayonne who are now staring into the abyss.
After considerable investment pre-season in the likes of Mike Phillips, Joe Rockocoko and Cédric Heymans you would have expected Bayonne to have at least posed some sort of threat, but their performance in Perpignan was beyond pathetic, shipping 31 points and scoring none at all in a totally abject second period. Quite what has gone wrong over on the south-west coast is hard to fathom,
but they have a crunch Basque derby against their struggling neighbours
Biarritz in two weeks' time that has now taken on massive proportions. I'll be
there for what promises to be a firework-filled afternoon.
The point of this week's column, though, isn't to ridicule Bayonne, but to praise
Perpignan – or rather one Perpignan player in particular. Former England prop
Perry Freshwater, the man who by his own admission spent pretty much the
entire 2007 Rugby World Cup “carrying tackle bags” (not strictly true, he
played in two group games), is in the very last days of what has by any
standards been an incredible professional career. Having left his native New
Zealand for Leicester in England when he was just 21 years old, 'Pezza' made
over 130 appearances for the Tigers from 1995 onwards, benching in two
successful Heineken Cup Finals and establishing a reputation as a great player
and a great bloke.
With his path to regular first team action blocked by the sizable frame of
England international Graham Rowntree, though, Pezza moved on in 2003,
opting to head down to the south coast of France by joining Perpignan. This,
remember, in the days when a move across the channel was far from the norm
and before France became the financially attractive draw it is today.
Things were certainly not the same under the Mediterranean sun. Having been
used to Leicester's ultra-professional, work-obsessed environment, Pezza
suddenly found himself in an arena where things were done just that little bit
differently. Dissatisfied with what he thought was an undercooked strength and
conditioning programme, he once went and asked one of the staff if they could
help him devise a personalised routine for a bit of extras. The request was
greeted with a bemused Gallic shrug and a simple piece of advice– “Eat more
Yet despite this more chaotic approach, Pezza quickly found himself loving his
new life, establishing himself as a fixture in the Perpignan front row and
enjoying the everyday cut and thrust of life eyeballing a varied collection of
grizzled, 'no quarter giving' opposition props. French rugby has long had a
reputation for its intense physical confrontations and Pezza soon proved
himself a prop who could go head to head and toe to toe with allcomers, week
after week. His wholehearted approach quickly immediately endeared him to
the club's Catalan supporters, who bestowed on him the ultimate honour of re-
naming him 'Agua Fresca' (you don't need me to translate!). Freshwater's
legendary status was then further confirmed in 2009 when he was a vital
member of the Perpignan team that won the French Top 14, the first time
USAP had won the top flight title in 44 years! What's more, it meant so much
to him that he cried live on national telly when Perpignan beat Clermont in the
final in Paris. This only made the fans love him more, of course!
And now, with his 39th birthday fast approaching on July 27, Perry Freshwater
has finally opted to hang up his boots. Imagine, doing battle week-in, week-out
with the hardest of the hard in the Top 14 front rows at such a ripe old age.
They should cast the man a medal just for that! But what is even more
impressive is that Freshwater has always gone about his work with an
enthusiasm that would put men half his age to shame. And with a smile never,
ever far from his lips. This is a man who knows how privileged he is to be
playing rugby for a living and he's never lost sight of that. Yes, I declare a
personal interest. Pezza is a mate. But that shouldn't colour your judgement of
the man's achievements. In a world where the word 'legend' is bandied about
too frequently by the likes of me and my journalistic colleagues, here I have no
hesitation in decreeing that Perry Freshwater really is a bona fide legend. And
when he takes his leave at the end of this season the world of rugby will be an
infinitely poorer place without him.