Joué Nicholas, joué…

Caught up I was; all of a tizz. Clermont knocked the stuffing out of the English Champions with a performance of rugby brilliance. It was top drawer, first rate, Michelin starred.

The stadium was rocking, the tries were rolling in and at fifteen for the home side, one young lad was having a field day. Oh, how we purred to see Nicholas Abendanon, formerly of Bath and England, revel in all his new fangled, yellow-tinged glory. His performance was so good, he was summoned almost immediately to an audience with Sky Sports. The nation looked on as Will Greenwood and Scott Quinnell flanked him, Alex Payne posed the questions, and a producer screamed into headphones for someone to ask if Stuart Lancaster had been in touch. ‘Benders’, grinning and still trying to get his bearings, looked like a fourth former in the pub, who’d just been called up to the sixth form table and told he could order a pint.

The outpouring continued in the papers the next morning. Pundits extolled the fullback’s pace and guile; his offloading and defensive work rate. National and international press couldn’t fit him in fast enough to their ‘teams of the weekend’ and none could resist the temptation to ask, ‘will England start picking some of these France-based players?’

None of the above is uncalled for, all is due. The performance of Abendanon, and indeed his Clermont colleagues on Saturday afternoon, was superb. I’m not doubting that. Far from it, I’m with all those in appreciation: Nick Abendanon was brilliant. But here’s my question, and it is one that has been rumbling around in my head for a while now. Hasn’t Nick Abendanon always been this brilliant?

Before moving to the Auvergne, Abendanon was at the Rec. He was brilliant there. I watched a fair amount of his rugby and I can’t really remember any bad games. He scored tries few others could. He led the stats as far as metres made and opponents sidestepped; he linked the line sublimely, positioned himself astutely and accurately, and defensively never shied away from a tackle. Look him up on YouTube, see for yourself. You’ll soon be saying, ‘Oh yeah, I remember that try.’

This season, more of the same, but perhaps a bit better. Of course, it would be fair to say he now plays in a finer side; naturally, the torch burns brighter. To compare him to one of his England rivals accurately, you have to look at records in the same competition: The Champions Cup. Abendanon and Alex Goode have played the same amount of matches, almost the same amount of minutes: in fact, Goode has been on the field 27 minutes longer. They were in the same pool, so have played very similar opposition and yet Abendanon’s stats tower over Goode’s: more than twice as many defenders beaten, more than twice as many clean breaks, 716 metres against Goode’s 471 and yet roughly the same amount of carries (84-76).

Abendanon’s two England caps – you knew he only had two right, that fact hasn’t escaped you over the past few days? – came back in 2007. He started one game and was an introduced sub in the other. South Africa in Pretoria in June, starting on the bench (a 55-22 hammering) and then the World Cup warm up against France in the August at Twickenham (15-21 defeat). He played just shy of 150 games in the Premiership for Bath and just before his move to France, last season, he was at his most electric. He is as balanced a runner with the ball as you will see in the modern game, I promise you, he really is up there with the likes of Christian Cullen. Abendanon is grace and speed personified. His fellow pros will tell you. Before the game, Twitter was alight with former colleagues lauding him and wishing he would show his stuff in the game against Saints. Ask anyone who has played with Nick and they will say he’s fantastic. And yet, Lancaster, and his predecessors, did not come calling. He was not seen as the answer internationally.

So he went to France. Caught the ball in one of Europe’s most transcendent back lines and just did what he does. What he has always been doing. He went to Clermont-Ferrand for the experience, the challenge, the money, but perhaps most of all, because he’d been doing his stuff in the Premiership since he burst on to the scene in 2006, and there seemed no further place to go. Yes, people explained, but playing in France will mean it will be almost impossible to get picked for England. ‘Right,’ he retorted, ‘And?’

When cross-examined by the post-match panel, Abendanon stumbled on his words and paused, as if searching for the right expression; on one occasion the host rephrased a question to get him to speak. The highlights of his performance rolled on the VT and he eventually trotted out a benign answer about always wanting to be on the front foot and attacking. He was almost physically jumped on by Greenwood, who wanted clarification over whether there had or hadn’t been communication from Lancaster. Abendanon shook his head and raised his eyebrows. Perhaps he was worn out from an incredible Champions Cup quarter-final, perhaps a little bit dazzled by all the bright lights and cameras. But I was secretly hoping that Nick Abendanon was, most of all, just trying to hold in the phrase “But this is what I’ve always done, why is this so surprising to everyone?”

Joué, Nicholas, joué.

Sam Roberts © 2015. (Text only). All Rights Reserved.

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