One of the unalloyed pleasures of the Heineken Cup is the chance to sample other cultures, other ways of rugby life.
One of the unalloyed pleasures of the Heineken Cup is the chance to sample other cultures, other ways of rugby life. For some of us, it means dipping the occasional toe in Continental waters; for players such as Mark Denney, who left Wasps in the summer to join Castres in France, it is full-scale immersion. "The French respect and admire what they call the Anglo-Saxon way," says Denney, "the hours we work, the way we're always striving to improve ourselves. But I think they laugh at it as well."
Denney made more than 150 appearances in the centre for Wasps, including 28 in the Heineken Cup, which the English champions won last May by beating Toulouse. At 29, he was ready to do things the French way, and the same went for another Wasp, the 33-year-old flanker Paul Volley, who signed for Castres at the same time. Their first impressions of this small town in the Tarn, east of Toulouse, can be easily summed up: vive la différence. "We're in the south here," said Denney, "and the people see themselves as different from those in Paris, never mind England. There's a mix with the Spanish, the Catalans, the Basques, the Arabs. Our ground holds about 9,000, and there's always a good atmosphere."
The ambience, and foie gras instead of jam butties, is not the only contrast when you cross the Channel. The financial set-up in the two countries varies significantly. "To come over here is a fantastic opportunity to earn good money for the final years of your career," said Denney. "Wasps are limited by the Premiership's salary cap. They had to make sure they'd got a big enough squad to compete in England and in Europe, and they achieved that aim, but to do it the players had to take pay cuts. They thinned the budget out, per player.
"Here, the likes of Toulouse, Biarritz and Castres have got a €10 million-plus budget [about £7m], a lot of which goes on players, so the squads are very big and full of quality. The salary cap has been great for English rugby, but it's served its purpose. It's going to be a problem in the future if they want to compete against French teams. Financially, they might have to push the parameters back - though they will probably wait until the Premiership clubs are all breaking even." This is not to say there are no checks and balances. It's just that in the same way French towns shut down at lunch-time, and the population work a 35-hour week, spend Sundays with the family and take Monday off, they do things differently there.
"The clubs have their books looked at every month," said Denney. "If something is not financially viable, they are penalised with relegation, which is probably a good way of doing it. But it means the wealthy clubs have got millions of euros to spend on the team." Castres' spending power has garnered, in addition to Volley and Denney, the former Scotland full-back Glenn Metcalfe, plus a South African, three Argentinians and a Uruguayan. The highly-rated Kiwi prop Kees Meeuws arrives next month.
Denney has a two-roomed apartment overlooking the Agout River. Directly opposite is a bar, Café Cocina, owned by Mauricio Reggiardo (he of the the flowing mane in Argentina's front row). It is a handy bolthole for the Bristol University history graduate who won a Blue while reading law at Cambridge, not least because his pal Volley has his hands full with a recently arrived baby girl. Castres don't go in for the pre-match meal of lore - five courses with wine, and that was before a big game - and Denney says they are gradually catching up with "the most professional rugby environment" he knew under Warren Gatland at Wasps.
"We don't train for long periods, but we do quite of bit of weights, a lot of video analysis, and we have a fantastic training centre." He is taking French lessons, and hopes eventually to land a job connected with the 2007 World Cup.
Dean Richards is the only non-French coach operating in the Top 16 domestic championship, as assistant to Pierre Tremouille at Grenoble. But professionalism is eating like woodworm at another of the central planks of French rugby: that as soon as a team venture beyond the sound of their church bells, they lose interest. The number of home wins is down from 75 per cent to 58 per cent so far this season.
"We've picked up points in all our away games so far," said Denney, whose fly-half Yann Delaigue was in the losing Toulouse side against Wasps. "Our squad will be rotated: with Europe plus the league, we're looking at a minimum of 36 games before any knockout rounds or play-offs." In the Heineken Cup, Castres kick off against Neath-Swansea Ospreys at the Stade Pierre Antoine next Saturday, before taking on Harlequins and Munster.
As befits his background, Denney is clued up on the history of both club and town. "In the early industrial age, they discovered a method of separating wool from the sheep's skin, so Castres and Mazamet nearby had lots of ties with towns in northern England. And the club are backed by Pierre Fabre, a billionaire pharmacist who's about the 17th richest man in France. He pioneered a plant extract effective in treating varicose veins." Not quite the rock 'n' roll of Wasps' owner, Chris Wright, founder of the Chrysalis record label, but, as Denney is happy to testify, each to his own.Reuse content