By Gavin Mortimer, Rugby World writer
DOWN IN Perpignan Luke Charteris isn’t hard to miss. At 6ft 9in and 20st, and with that fair Celtic skin of his, he stands out a mile in the Catalan city where people tend to be shorter, stockier and slightly more bronzed. Not that the Wales lock minds the attention. “I’m loving it down here,” he tells Rugby World. “The people are so friendly and passionate about their rugby. They want to talk to me about it, which is great, but my French needs improving before I can start bantering back.”
There is one downside, however, to his new life in the South of France. “The heat’s killing me!” he says, laughing. “I’ll be so happy when it’s winter.” So will a lot of the locals. A heatwave has been sweeping across France in August, pushing temperatures into the 100s – just as the new Top 14 season kicked off.
At least Perpignan began their campaign with an evening kick-off at the Stade Aimé Giral against last season’s Top 14 runners-up Toulon. It was a match that featured 11 Brits in total: seven Englishmen, three Welshman and a solitary Scot in Alasdair Strokosch, and it was one of Toulon’s English contingent that won the day for the visitors with Jonny Wilkinson scoring all his side’s points in the 21-15 win.
“We were bitterly disappointed with the defeat,” admits Charteris, who moved from the Dragons to Perpignan on a three-year contract earlier in the summer. “It was our discipline that cost us because we had all the possession in the second half. The stats showed Toulon made about 130 tackles to our 40. We created three or four good chances but we just kept making silly errors.”
Wilkinson punished those errors in a faultless display of kicking, but despite the defeat Charteris believes Perpignan are already showing signs of their potential. “We have a new coach (Marc Delpoux), a lot of new players and I think in a lot of areas we looked good so I’m confident we’ll have a good season.”
Before signing for Perpignan, Charteris sought the advice of international team-mate James Hook, who made the switch from the Ospreys last summer. What he heard from the fly-half was all positive and so far the 29-year-old second-row is having the time of his life, saying he feels “mentally freshened up” by his move south.
It’s too early to properly compare the Top 14 to the RaboDirect Pro12 but there is one difference Charteris has already noticed. “The atmosphere in the stadium on Saturday was amazing,” he says, adding: “It was comparable to an international match. And we lost! What’s it going to be like when we win? Other than that there isn’t much difference I’ve seen so far. Perpignan is a very professional club and what we do in training is very similar to what I was doing back home.”
Charteris won the last of his 37 caps as a replacement in the 20-19 defeat to Australia in June and he hopes to add to his collection in November’s Internationals. “It was a tough decision to leave Wales,” he admits. “I know I’ve put myself at a disadvantage by coming to France, particularly with there being so much strength in depth in the second row in Wales, but the challenge for me is to play better in France than I was in Wales. I’ve got all the release forms (in my contract) so there won’t be any problem with Perpignan letting me play for Wales if I’m required.”
In the meantime Charteris is focusing his energies on reviving the fortunes of Perpignan, a club that has slipped down the French hierarchy since they won the Top 14 title in 2009. Last season they finished 11th, prompting a huge overhaul of the squad. Out went 20 players, either into retirement or to another club, and in came 11 new faces including an Englishman, a Samoan, a Scotsman and Tongan. “Fortunately there are a lot of guys who speak English and French,” says Charteris, “so they can point us in the right direction when the coaches start screaming in French.”
There’ll be screams of delight in Perpignan in the coming months if the men in the ‘sang et or’ (blood and gold) shirts climb back to the peak of the Top 14.