Kelleher at home among superstars

Legendary All Black No 9 is finding that life is rosy at Guy Noves' Toulouse, the French game's Manchester United
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The Independent Online

They may produce some of the finest players in the world, but New Zealand's problem is keeping them in the confines of the North and South Islands. Toulon offered Daniel Carter, the world's greatest stand-off, £790,000 for 10 months' work. Byron Kelleher, who regards himself as the world's greatest scrum-half, is not on such extravagant wages at Toulouse, but life is sweet and he would not deter his former partner from experiencing it.

Before last year's World Cup, Kelleher, a Dunedin boy, had agreed to join Agen, but that was before they were relegated. He got a call from Toulouse who, in French rugby, resemble a model of Manchester United in terms of presence, clout and support.

Kelleher is in a brasserie at the stadium and it is packed with people eating a lunch of rare quality; well, rare in Dunedin. "When I arrived here I scratched my head and thought, 'What the hell am I doing playing rugby in France?'. I spoke to other All Blacks who are over here and they initially thought the same, but then you find your feet. It takes a couple of months to adapt and then you realise what a great place it is. The community embraces you and you want to prove yourself. They live and die for rugby here."

The southern hemisphere is sick and tired of losing players to Europe for bigger salaries. "I didn't come here on a two-year deal for money," Kelleher insists. " The people in Toulouse wanted to know that Byron Kelleher had arrived to play rugby. I'm very competitive, very proud. After leaving the All Blacks I wanted to achieve new goals."

He and Toulouse might do just that. On Saturday they meet London Irish at Twickenham in the semi-finals of the Heineken Cup, which the French club won in its inaugural year in 1996 and again in 2003 and '05. Given their resources, it should have been a lot more. The last time they won, they used the trophy as a "space hopper" in a canal and had to spend €5,000 (£3,950) repairing it. "London Irish don't havesuperstars as such but they're a superstar team," Kelleher says.

Favouritism does not always sit well with Toulouse, and Kelleher knows the feeling. World Cup: New Zealand v France in Cardiff, and the French tackled themselves and the All Blacks to a standstill. Kelleher was there, opposite Jean-Baptiste Elissalde. He remembers the "devastation": "It was a massive hangover. We'd worked so hard and it was taken away. We were the best-prepared team. I played 61 Tests in 10 years for the All Blacks and achieved everything except winning the World Cup. C'est la vie."

During an unforgettable second half, Kelleher and Carter left the field. The All Blacks were still in front but then Frédéric Michalak made a break and delivered a try-scoring pass that most observers thought was forward. The English referee, Wayne Barnes, will not be going to Auckland on his holidays.

Later, Michalak left Toulouse for South Africa. By all accounts he is not happy and would like to return. Meanwhile, Guy Noves, the veteran coach, has come up with a novel solution at half-back: Elissalde at 10, Kelleher at nine. "It's a nice combination," Kelleher says. "Elissalde is a great kicker; my strength is to deliver a long, quick, flat pass.

"I've spent 10 years trying to be the best in the world. I like to run, create some danger and keep people guessing. Toulouse like to play rugby and keep the ball alive. Back home the season seems like a 100-metre sprint. Here it's more of a marathon."

In an age when coaches have a short shelf life, Noves is a marathon man – 17 years in charge and in his eighth Heineken semi-final. Yes, he would have liked to have become the coach of France, but they never asked him. "Toulouse is a long way from the capital," Noves says. "It's unbelievable that politics can be more important than the sport. Philippe Saint-André went to Sale to prepare for the French job and that is why I look less ridiculous than him."

On the eve of the quarter-final against Cardiff, Noves went on a bicycle ride. "A Mercedes was coming towards me but it was like it was being driven by an Englishman, because it was on the wrong side of the road. The only thing I could do was jump on to the bonnet of the car but I went through the windscreen. I was very lucky." He was air-lifted to hospital but his wife, an anaesthetist, was able to report there was no serious damage.