Alex King: King of France returns

Twice European champion with Wasps, the outside-half tells Chris Hewett about la diffrence with Clermont
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The Independent Online

And so it will come to pass, in High Wycombe this evening, that Alex King makes a first competitive start for his new club Association Sportive Montferrandaise Clermont Auvergne, who, it comes as a relief to report, are far easier on the eye than the ear against his old club, Wasps. A fair few French supporters are expected to make the trip from the Massif Central to witness it, some of whom may even be tempted to generate some noise by shouting "Give us an A...". If that "A" is for Association rather than Alex, the game will be finished long before the chant.

"I know who won't be shouting for us," said the 32-year-old outside-half this week. "I've already had a phone call from my nephew, saying: 'Sorry, I'm supporting Wasps.' It seems I've managed to cause a rift in the family. I've bought the little so-and-so a Clermont shirt for Christmas, but I'm not sure he'll get it now."

King moved across the Channel with ideas of playing regular first-team rugby from the start of the French domestic campaign, but has had to wait his turn, largely because his principal rival for the No 10 shirt, the Australian import Brock James, has been on a hot streak from day one. "I would have liked to have played more, certainly, but you're never going to get it all your own way when you move to a club as successful and up together as Clermont," he admitted. "Besides, Brock was voted the second best player in the whole of France last season. He'll take some shifting."

James played pretty well in the first of the Heineken Cup pool fixtures between the two clubs, in Clermont-Ferrand a week ago, but King still managed half an hour's meaningful activity at the business end of the match, during which he was hounded by a few former team-mates with the scent of blood in their nostrils. A certain Lawrence Dallaglio was first on the trail when players leave Wasps, the former England captain tends to take it personally and King knew what was coming.

"There were a few words spoken," he said, "but they were left on the pitch, where they belong. I've always had a massive feeling for the Wasps club, and it will never leave me. All the boys know that."

He could have stayed with Dallaglio and company for another year, but having won a second European title his performance against Leicester in the Twickenham final last May was a small masterpiece of creative judgement he felt it time to broaden his horizons.

Clermont are a wealthy club. They have no fewer than seven major sponsors, including their traditional backers in the boardroom of the Michelin tyre company, and have used their financial clout to position themselves alongside Toulouse, Stade Franais and Biarritz at the top of the French game.

Championship runners-up last season, they have their hearts set on a first title in 2008. To judge by their full-blooded effort seven days ago, they have decided to fight on the European front as well as the domestic one.

"Clermont are brilliantly organised, on and off the field," King enthused. "When the possibility of moving there first arose, I had talks with Vern Cotter [the New Zealander in charge of the coaching at Parc des Sports Marcel-Michelin] and was very impressed.

"He's a hard-nosed sort an ambitious, no-nonsense character who is used to winning. Then I spoke to Stephen Jones [the Welsh international stand-off] down at Llanelli. He'd had two tremendous years at Clermont and encouraged me to give it a go. From there, it was down to me. Did I want one more season in familiar surroundings, or should I grab the opportunity to experience something different? When I thought about it, I realised I'd always wanted to play in the French league. Paul Volley and Mark Denney, good friends with whom I'd shared a lot at Wasps, had taken up offers to play at Castres and revelled in it. It was a now or never moment, and I jumped. There are no regrets."

He has a house in the village of Marsat, a 20-minute drive north of the city. "It's a lovely place in a beautiful part of the world: one shop, some good restaurants within easy reach ... if the weather wasn't quite so Baltic, it would be perfect," he said. "I'm the only Englishman at the club, but the welcome couldn't have been warmer. There are players from all over the place we have South Africans and Pacific islanders, people from Italy and Georgia, Argentina and Canada but it's still very much a French atmosphere. We even get to have proper lunches after training." In other words, life in the Auvergne is a tad different to life in Acton.

One of the quiet sophisticates of English rugby a player more attuned to the arts than the sciences, and one convinced of the supremacy of creativity over coercion his departure was a blow to the European champions. But Wasps being Wasps, they had identified his long-term replacement well in advance. Danny Cipriani, the talk of England's elite coaching community since his mid-teens, is now the talk of the town, having moved from full-back to the pivot position and played a series of blinders in both the Guinness Premiership and the Heineken Cup. He has also had his first entanglement with the tabloids "Yes, I heard about that," acknowledged King with a faint chuckle so when old and new confront each other today, the fascination levels will be unusually high.

"If you ask me, Danny has everything it takes," King said with his customary generosity. "I worked closely with him during my last couple of seasons at Wasps and got to know him well. I like him as a player, and I like him as a person. If he keeps his feet on the ground, as I'm sure he will with coaches as good as Ian McGeechan and Shaun Edwards behind him, he'll have a special career in rugby. He's certainly in the right place to make things happen for himself.

"Wasps made a fantastic move by signing Riki Flutey from London Irish the ideal player to bring the best out of a youngster like Danny. In fact, he seems to be bringing the best out of an old man like Fraser Waters as well It's a good Wasps midfield at the moment. Really good. We have a lot of serious players at Clermont too, but this will be a big test for us."

Last season, in the throes of one of his "let's get this straight" moods, Edwards described King as the best big-game 10 in England and suggested that Brian Ashton might do worse than consider him for a tour of World Cup duty. When pressed on the matter, King put his natural reserve to one side and volunteered his services. "I'd jump at the chance," he said at the time. "I'm a better player now than I was in 1997. To be picked for international rugby then and not now ... you might call it a strange rationale."

Strange indeed, and looking back, England could have used King in France. Had be been there, they would not have gone into the pool match against South Africa without an outside-half worthy of the name, and Jonny Wilkinson would not have been forced to play injured against the Samoans and Tongans, either of whom might have put him out of the tournament.

But it didn't happen, and now that a new generation of outside-halves Cipriani, Toby Flood, Ryan Lamb, Shane Geraghty are making their way in the professional game, it never will. King will finish his career with five caps, four of them as a replacement. Had he been French, he would probably have won 50. There's irony for you.

"I'm not complaining," he said. "If you can't enjoy the kind of experiences I've had in rugby, it's a sad story. And it's not over not for a while, at least.

"Having spent all those years playing in London, where most rugby players can be quite anonymous, it's fascinating to be in a place like this, where union is the big game in town. Rugby is absolutely central to life in Clermont-Ferrand; it's woven into the fabric of the community. Every time you go into a shop or a restaurant, there's a picture of the team on the wall.

"And I already feel a part of it. Last week was strange, finding myself up against so many friends, and it will be stranger again being back in High Wycombe, which I know like the back of my hand. But I consider myself to be a Clermont player,a member of a proud team determined to do well in this competition. I'm sure I'll have a great time after the game, but during it, I'll have my business head on and I'll be doing everything I can to ensure Wasps finish second. I love the old place, but just at the moment Clermont matter more."

There are few similarities between the two sides, and some very big differences the most obvious being Wasps' ability to win the really important games. Clermont have made the final of the French Championship on eight occasions since the mid-1930s, and lost every time. King has had his frustrations, but he barely knows what it is to collect a runners-up medal. If Clermont reach a major final over the next six months, they will arrive there with a player who knows what it takes to win the damned thing.