How El Abd stepped into the sunshine on the Côte d'Azur

The flanker who made his name at Bristol tells Chris Hewett why he has blossomed at Toulon alongside their star, Jonny Wilkinson
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The Independent Online

Joe El Abd has a tale to tell: a tale of two maritime cities with a deep-rooted passion for rugby.

One of them is Bristol, the home of a once great club fallen on hard times and sinking slowly towards the third tier of the English game, from where their chances of resurfacing will be minimal. The other is Toulon, where a once great local club also found themselves drowning in a sea of troubles until a local gazillionaire decided they could be great again and threw them a gold-plated rubber ring. El Abd played for the first before joining the second, and there are no prizes for guessing which he prefers.

"Rugby is the biggest thing in town and it's incredibly exciting," says the 30-year-old flanker, whose heart-and-soul performances for Bristol over a six-season stretch established him as the archetypal "player's player" – a hard, honest, cement-between-the-bricks type who, through his complete commitment to the cause, shone the harshest of lights on those guilty of mismanaging the club towards oblivion. "Last week, when we played Munster in the Heineken Cup, you couldn't steal a ticket, let alone buy one. They even sold spaces in the aisles of the stadium. Apparently, the mayor gave his permission. You can do anything in Toulon if the mayor says so."

You can certainly do most things in the rugby sense when you have a playing budget of around €21m (£18m) – riches that have made Toulon the most talked-about team in Europe. The money comes from Mourad Boudjellal, who made his fortune in comic strips and is now indulging a different kind of fantasy, and it is being spent by Philippe Saint-André, one of the legendary figures of the French game and a man well versed in the art of building expensive teams with other people's cash. Yet it would be a grave mistake to think any fool could piece together a winning side, given financial wherewithal on this scale. Yes, Saint-André paid top dollar for Jonny Wilkinson and Juan Martin Fernandez Lobbe, Carl Hayman and Felipe Contepomi. Yet he also bought men like El Abd, who had rarely, if ever, commanded the attention of the headline writers.

"We split the star billing 50-50, Jonny and me," says the Brighton-born back-rower with a chuckle. "In all seriousness, he's been a star on and off the field. He sets excellent standards whatever he does, wherever he goes. And it's not just Jonny, of course. There are good players at Toulon wherever you look: we have Fernandez Lobbe, Joe van Niekerk and George Smith in the back row alone, plus a couple of very talented Frenchmen who are right there in the selection mix. When you're playing with people like that and the team is going as well as it is, you feel you can give full expression to your individuality. It's a different way of playing rugby here. A different atmosphere entirely."

Fernandez Lobbe, Van Niekerk and Smith are three of the outstanding loose forwards of the professional era, yet El Abd has made more than his fair share of big-game starts and generally features in the match-day squad. He will be in Swansea today when Toulon, already guaranteed a quarter-final place in their first season of Heineken Cup rugby, attempt to maintain their considerable momentum by doing a job on Ospreys. Saint-André, who first tried to sign El Abd during his spell as director of rugby at Sale, clearly understands his value.

"Philippe likes his forwards, we all know that," says the flanker. "But that's true of French rugby in general. The coaches, the journalists, the supporters – they're all connoisseurs of the scrum and the breakdown. Those areas of the game are called the 'dark arts' in England, but here, they're seen as the finer arts. The people love them; they understand their importance and what it takes to achieve supremacy. When I came here, I thought the French tradition was based around flair and the flowing game. That's not it at all. I was pretty happy when I realised that the things that really matter here are the things I'm most involved in as a player."

During El Abd's first season at Stade Felix Mayol – the home ground on the Mediterranean was named after a popular concert singer who, having tripped the light fantastic in Paris in the years after the Great War, bought the land and donated it to the club – Toulon reached the final of the Amlin Challenge Cup and the last four of the domestic Top 14 championship. Even now, with a Heineken Cup knockout place secured, the French title is the No 1 priority.

"That's the holy grail here, without a doubt," El Abd admits. "Don't get me wrong: the Heineken Cup is not something we'd ever treat as a side issue. Now we've come through this season's 'group of death', the public interest is tremendous. But there is so much history attached to the Top 14 and it's the primary goal for every club. Living in a rugby bubble like this – there's no football here, not like Marseilles down the road – the expectation is tremendous. Everyone talks about rugby. It's like Bath, but bigger. The sooner we win the title, the better."

It is at this point that he contrasts and compares his Toulon experience with the trauma some of his old playmates are going through at Bristol, who were relegated two seasons ago and are now swaying alarmingly on the edge of the drop zone in the second division. "It's not nice to see," he comments. "I keep in touch with some of the guys, but I don't know what to say to them. It's such a great rugby city, Bristol. It has a tradition the way Toulon has a tradition. They're on a tough road at the moment, and when I look at what has happened here – 10 years ago, this club was in a bad place – it's obvious that without money, nothing happens.

"Money talks. You see it in Premier League football and increasingly, you're seeing it in French club rugby. The Top 14 people are in negotiations with the broadcasters as we speak, and the sums they're talking will drive this league forward again. Lyons are the next big thing waiting to happen. They're playing in the second tier, and had 32,000 for a game against Grenoble just recently. You can only wonder what they'll do when they're promoted, as most people think they will be.

"I look at Toulon's financial situation and I grieve for Bristol, who don't even own their own ground. Without the ground, how do you drive your business? You don't, do you? Not in this day and age."

Living the high life as he is, El Abd understands the lure of the Top 14. What he does not fully understand is Twickenham's objection, as expressed by the director of elite rugby, Rob Andrew, and the national team manager, Martin Johnson, to home-grown talent opting for a tour of duty on the far side of the Channel. He is not alone in his bewilderment. Brian Ashton, who knows as much as anyone in the northern hemisphere about player development, has frequently argued in these pages that foreign experience is a priceless part of a rugby education. Phil Vickery, a World Cup winner in 2003 and a World Cup final captain four years later, could be heard arguing the same on a radio show last week.

"It's not as though we're talking about disappearing to the southern hemisphere," El Abd remarks. "If you're in France, you're not a 12-hour flight away, playing at the other end of the year. People have always used rugby as a vehicle to explore different lifestyles, and while it doesn't work for everyone, it definitely works for a high percentage. Look at Jonny. He's in the form of his life, playing for a club in a position to achieve things. It's up to the powers that be in England, I suppose, but from where I'm sitting, their attitude on this is a little odd."

With that, he heads off for a bowl of fish soup and a stroll in the winter sunshine of the Côte d'Azur. And to think he could still be in Bristol.