Steffon Armitage is standing tall among giants
Back-rower relishes being in company of greats ahead of Toulon's first Heineken Cup semi-final
Mourad Boudjellal, the owner and ubiquitous cheerleader of Toulon, made his millions selling comics with tales of superheroes and mythical beasts, and he has put together a rugby squad along similar lines.
But if you ask Steffon Armitage to describe the motivation he feels playing for the French club with Jonny Wilkinson, Bakkies Botha, Matt Giteau and the rest, his answer has an earthly reality. "You don't want to let down the person next to you," he says. "I've got Jonny alongside me, and my first thing is not to let him down. I've got to look him in the face the day after the game and say sorry if I've mucked up. I don't ever want to do that."
Boudjellal cuts a maverick figure as he bounces around on the Toulon touchline, but while his seven years as chairman have seen a remarkable cast list come and go – Tana Umaga and George Gregan in the first wave, with Wilkinson arriving in 2009 – the trophies have yet to follow. Two European Challenge Cup final losses, in 2010 and 2012, and an agonising Top 14 final beating by Toulouse last year are the closest they have come.
The 27-year-old Armitage, who is in his second season there after joining from London Irish, wants to ease Boudjellal's pain. "He's one in a million, just the most passionate guy, ever, in rugby I've seen," says Armitage, who lived in Nice as a lad. The next step is Sunday's Heineken Cup semi-final – which will be Toulon's first – against Saracens at Twickenham.
In the quarter-finals, Toulon edged a ferociously fought home tie with Leicester – finishing with a Wilkinson dropped goal – while Saracens' defence pulverised Ulster, also at Twickenham. "We're looking forward to a big, physical battle and just a nasty game, one of those that will be won in the forward pack," says Armitage. "Lots of hard running and big tackles." Does he expect Saracens to kick a lot? "We've got some dangerous backs, so good luck to them if they do try that. We're going to try everything. You'll see."
The dangerous backs (among them Armitage's full-back brother, Delon) go with hugely experienced forwards, among them Botha, who smashed the Leicester prop Marcos Ayerza's clavicle in one challenge, two All Blacks in Carl Hayman and Chris Masoe, plus Armitage's fellow England forwards Andy Sheridan and Nick Kennedy. Or, more accurately, ex-England forwards since they headed to the Med. They are unlikely to be picked by the British & Irish Lions, either, as the touring team will be in Hong Kong playing the Barbarians on the same first weekend in June that Toulon, the current French league leaders, hope to be in their domestic final. Armitage would happily join the Lions late – "Yeah, 100 per cent" – but he says the head coach, Warren Gatland has plenty of options.
"There's a lot of good players who had a great Six Nations: Tipuric, Warburton, O'Brien, O'Mahony," says Armitage. "And Robshaw… there's a lot of back-rows. I know it's going to be a tough call for him and, er, good luck." What would Armitage's back-row balance be?
"Oh, a scavenger at seven, good with ball in hand; a big, powerful eight with a cool head, who will get you out of trouble with kick-offs and stuff like that; and then a really good No 6 – to be in the line-outs, and quite quick and making his tackles all day long." Not quite what England have been fielding of late, then? Armitage, who has mellowed as a small fish in the big Côte d'Azur pond, refuses to bite. "I'm not a coach, I wouldn't take my advice. I'm just a player."
We met at Twickenham on Thursday as Armitage gave the semi-final a promotional push, and he thinks of it as home after wins there with England against Italy (his debut in 2009; the first of just five caps) and Wales in 2010. There were also several capital double-headers with London Irish and losses in a Premiership final to Leicester and a Heineken semi-final to Toulouse.
He misses Nando's, shops open in the afternoon and his mates from his old club. But it is clear Armitage thinks the Top 14 is bigger and better than the English Premiership: "Every week there's at least 14,000 fans, it's like going to a football match every weekend." France have five of the eight clubs in the Heineken and Amlin Challenge Cup semi-finals next weekend, to England's one: the South African-backed Saracens.
"Sometimes I pinch myself still," Armitage says. "All these names, you just think, how did I get here? It's all been good, but I want to make some great memories now, starting on the weekend."
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