Bath's loss is Leicester's gain: The Australian firing Tigers
Julian Salvi once graced the Rec but now the brilliant flanker is inspiring his new side's Heineken Cup tilt. But, he tells Chris Hewett, his Wallaby chances are probably gone
When Richard Cockerill describes Julian Salvi as a "Bath reject", as the Leicester boss often does, it is merely an exercise in ritual abuse of the kind generally aimed at the once-successful West Countrymen during one of their downturns.
(A few seasons ago, when the Recreation Grounders were playing second fiddle to Gloucester, they were famously greeted at Kingsholm by a fanzine front-page headline reading: "A warm welcome to our friends from the arsehole of the universe.") In reality, Cockerill considers Salvi to be one of his more inspired signings – something that seriously irritates Bath, who would have re-recruited the Australian like a shot had he not beaten them to it.
There have been some fairly sensational foreign recruits in English rugby down the ages, some of whom – a whole bunch of Samoans spring to mind, including Pat Lam and Va'aiga Tuigamala – were worth their weight in gold ingots to more than one club. But when it comes to making impacts in a hurry, Salvi is out there on his own. The Canberra-born flanker spent a single season at Bath (below) and performed so outstandingly well that he left with an array of glittering prizes, some bestowed upon him by his fellow players, others by supporters who had paid good money to watch him and didn't begrudge a penny of it. Now, a little over three months into his career at Welford Road, he is an early favourite for the Tigers' "player of the year" gong.
But for the fact that a World Cup was scheduled for 2011, he would most likely have stayed in Bath and continued playing alongside his good friend Matt Carraro, a Sydneysider who had signed up for a tour of Premiership duty at the same time. Instead, he opted to return to his hometown for a second spell of Super Rugby with the Brumbies. Two long-serving Wallaby breakaways, George Smith and Phil Waugh, were very much in their dotage, and while David Pocock was fast establishing himself as the best ball-winning No 7 in the game, the Australians would undoubtedly need a second open-side specialist at the global gathering. Not unreasonably, Salvi fancied his chances of landing the job.
"It was a World Cup tilt, pure and simple," he acknowledges. "I didn't go back for any other reason. Unfortunately, the environment I walked into wasn't quite what I'd been expecting and it dawned on me pretty quickly that things weren't going to work out the way I'd planned. There were all these internal conflicts going on: players versus coaches, coaches versus players. Inside two weeks, the head coach [Andy Friend] was gone – player power got rid of him, definitely. When I started I genuinely thought I'd have a shot at a World Cup place, but it went south almost immediately.
"I was bitterly disappointed at the way it turned out there because I'd always worshipped the Brumbies and regarded the club as home. There were only a couple of us who had been born in Canberra and come up through the local system, and I was one of them. I'd studied under George Smith – I learnt so much from him – and been a young player there in the great days, when George Gregan and Stephen Larkham were together at half-back. It saddened me to see the other side of it – to find myself part of a Brumbies set-up that wasn't working the way it should. And of course, I didn't play well enough myself to force a place in the Wallaby squad. Basically, nothing went to plan."
The Brumbies won only four of their 16 games and finished the season third from bottom – a long way short of acceptable for a team who had reached five finals between 1997 and 2004 and won two of them. Indeed, ending up sandwiched between the Perth-based Western Force and the Johannesburg-based Lions, two serial underperformers in the southern hemisphere's elite provincial competition, was more than flesh and blood could stand. When the Leicester assistant coach Matt O'Connor, another Australian, mentioned that a place on the Leicester roster might be there for the taking, Salvi had little hesitation in heading for the airport once again.
"I knew Matt from way back: he'd coached at the Brumbies at one time, running most of our attacking drills, and I had a strong affiliation with him," he explains. "I'd loved my time at Bath and while I knew Leicester would be a completely different scene – I understood enough about English rugby to realise that much – I also thought it would be interesting to experience something completely new. And this certainly falls into the 'new' category. The training is as hard as everyone always says it is: you don't walk away from a session, you limp. But even the preparation for training is more demanding than anywhere I've been previously. It's a tough environment. Basically, when you play for Leicester you're supposed to win.
"Winning was difficult at first. When I turned up I was immediately looked on as a senior player: understandable, given that there were 15 or 16 players missing through World Cup calls and injuries and all the rest of it, but a new one on me. Straight away, we were relying completely on the depth of the squad. There were 18-year-olds being thrown in at the deep end and expected to perform at the level of World Cup players. It's easier now because so many top people are back with us, but it was pretty demanding for a while.
"There again, it's such a fantastic buzz to be playing here, whatever the circumstances. A lot of the time back in Canberra, the crowds were down to maybe 7,000. At Welford Road, it's always 20,000-plus. It's why I want to play in the Premiership and the Heineken Cup. I love all that stuff. If I was a New Zealander or a South African, I guess I'd get the same sort of buzz playing in the National Provincial Championship or the Currie Cup, which mean so much to the rugby populations in those countries. We don't have that in Australia. Our domestic structure just doesn't compare. So when I'm involved in a really big club game – last week's match with Northampton, which turned into a bit of a 'do', or this weekend's match with Clermont Auvergne – it's pretty exciting."
Clermont are among the very biggest hitters in Europe these days. Financed by the Michelin tyre company, which dominates the region's industrial landscape, the 2010 French champions have a squad to die for. In the back row alone, they can pick three from Alexandre Audebert, Julien Bonnaire, Alexandre Lapandry, Elvis Vermeulen and Jason White – and that's just the hardened internationals. If Salvi can find a way of influencing events in the Massif Central tomorrow, it is not beyond the realms of possibility that the Wallaby hierarchy will sit up and take notice.
"That Clermont squad ... well, it's pretty ridiculous," he agrees. "I think playing them over there in a match that looks like it might be pivotal in terms of knockout qualification is as good as it gets. People say a big Heineken Cup game is closer to Test rugby than anything else you're likely to play, so I'm looking forward to it. We're on a good run at the moment: six wins and a draw in seven games. Yes, Clermont are good too, but I'd like to think we can keep things going."
And the Wallabies? Might they spot him playing one of his blinders for Leicester and give him a call? "I think I've probably had my shot," he replies. "You always have dreams and it's not as if the Lions tour in 2013 will come too late. I'm still only 26, after all. But David Pocock has shown himself to be a hell of a player on the international stage and he has a stranglehold on the position in Australia. You take it year by year but, the way I feel now, I can see myself staying in England. It's no small thing, playing really good rugby in a place where you're happy."
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