Tim Glover: Happiness is a prop called Perry

The good life on the Med suits Freshwater just fine - but he's up for the hard yards as well
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The Independent Online

Perry Freshwater, at the mellow age of 33, has just signed a two-year extension to his contract at Perpignan, a development that seems to be mutually beneficial. Certainly Fresh-water is not complaining. Befitting a man with such a surname, he spends a lot of his time swimming in the Med or eating fresh fish, which he barbecues in his garden.

"I was looking for happiness and I've found it," he said. "The lifestyle is fantastic. I bloody love it." Freshwater has settled for la dolce vita in Perpignan, which is on the south-east coast of France and separated from Spain by the Pyrenees, with his fiancée, whom he will marry at Christmas in their native Wellington, in New Zealand.

In case you get the wrong idea, he is also required to play a fair bit of high-octane rugby, and before he ties the knot on the North Island he may be knotting a Red Rose tie in the autumn internationals, beginning with the Test against the All Blacks at Twickenham on Sunday 5 November.

He is no freshman, having already won three caps for his adopted country, the first as a replacement against Samoa at Twickenham 11 months ago. "It was a dream to play in front of such a crowd. I was running around like an absolute bastard hoping not to get smashed by a huge Samoan. The whole thing was an honour."

A loosehead prop with a growing reputation - he is pushing Sale's Andrew Sheridan for a place in the England front row - Freshwater attended the England elite squad's training camps at Loughborough, a place he knows like the back of his hand; he spent seven years with Leicester before signing with Perpignan in 2003.

Freshwater's father, Tony, was a barrow boy in Walthamstow, east London, before joining the Royal Navy to "see the world". When he saw New Zealand, specifically Wellington, he decided to emigrate and raise a family.

Hence Perry attended Wellington College and did what most people do over there. He played rugby. "I started at full-back and then one day my geography teacher said I should be playing prop. My dad insisted I got a British passport. You never know what's going to happen."

In his early twenties Freshwater turned up at Leicester. "The plan was to stay in England for a year. It was about the time professionalism was starting and Bob Dwyer, who was then the coach, offered me a part-time contract. It was fantastic. I had been selling stationery over the phone and working at a bar to make ends meet."

When Dean Richards and John Wells (the latter is now the England forwards coach) took over at Welford Road Freshwater joined the squad, but he was the F behind Leicester's legendary ABC -the team used to wear letters instead of numbers on their jerseys - front row of Graham Rowntree, Richard Cockerill and Darren Garforth.

"It was tough to make the team but I learned a hell of a lot. I lived with Cockerill, who worked as an antiques restorer. Garforth was a scaffolder, and they brought a terrific work ethic to the training field. The level of training was incredible and they dragged me along. You had to be up to the mark or you would get such abuse."

Freshwater made 71 appearances as a replacement, a Tigers record. "I contributed to the squad, but I always felt that I had something more to offer. I was being pigeonholed as a reserve."

And then the seven-year itch. "I was on top of my game, I had done the hard yards and I thought, 'I know how to play this game now'. I probably should have left two years earlier. It was unfinished business."

With Cockerill's help - the hooker had moved to Clermont - Freshwater left Welford Road and joined Perpignan which, if you like fishing and swimming and vineyards and eating al fresco, is no bad move.

"We'd played Perpignan in the Heineken Cup and I was very taken with the area and the club. They're about as professional as you can get in France. It's also a great place to be if you're a prop. There's always some bloody huge bloke against you who can't run but just loves scrummaging. It's a macho thing. It's not unheard of for a team deliberately to put the ball straight into touch from the kick-off so they can start the match with a scrum. The attitude is, 'There's no way you're going to push us back'.

"We've got a good pack and we like to strangle teams, but we can also play a bit. There are differences between the French championship and the English Premiership and I wouldn't say one is better than the other. Training is different and we don't have the intense physical preparation, but the French are just good rugby players."

Freshwater - he was in Heineken Cup action against Benetton Treviso in Italy yesterday - featured, as a replacement, in Leicester's final triumph against Munster in Cardiff in 2002. He is a co-captain of Perpignan, who have five French internationals and others from eight different countries, including Nathan Hines from Scotland and Richard Parks from Wales.

"We're never going to be champions of the world, but we've put a small Catalan town on the map. The people are passionate about the game, and pride is a vital ingredient. I'd like to think I brought an element of that from my experiences at Leicester."

Freshwater is looking forward to the Wellington wedding with his partner, Fran Jensen - "It will be my first Christmas at home in 12 years" - but he has a busy schedule before then, what with the Heineken and the autumn Test programme.

"I never had a huge ambition to play for England and I didn't even know if I could, but having tasted it I'd love to do it again. The funny thing is not a lot of people know who I am. The England coaches find it difficult to come here so I've got to keep pushing and hope my body stays together. I've never felt fitter. Maybe I'm benefiting after all from those seasons on the bench."

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