By Gavin Mortimer, Rugby World writer
THEY SAY Lourdes is where you go in search of a miracle cure, but if you’re a thirty-something Englishman Toulon seems to be the place in France that has healing properties. We know all about Jonny Wilkinson, rejuvenated since he left Newcastle for the Cote d’Azur in 2009, and Simon Shaw has had a second wind since he quit Wasps for Toulon 12 months ago.
Now Andrew Sheridan has arrived in the South of France and so far, touch wood, the big man from Bromley has played eight games (including three pre-season friendlies) on the bounce for Toulon without so much as a twinge or a tweak. For a player who underwent four operations in two years that’s reason to feel blessed. “The climate is great out here and maybe that helps with the aches and pains,” says Sheridan.
Life is clearly going well for the 32-year-old Sheridan since he arrived at Toulon in the summer after nine years with Sale. “I’m really enjoying it out here,” he confirms. “I like the lifestyle and on the rugby side of things we’ve started the season well.”
So they have. Unbeaten in their first five matches, Toulon are the runaway leaders of the Top 14 but Sheridan warns: “We mustn’t be complacent. The key to the Top 14 is maintaining consistency because it’s such a long season. But we’re looking to improve with each game we play.”
Together with former All Black tighthead Carl Hayman and France hooker Sébastien Bruno, Sheridan forms a formidable front row. Add in the fact that the engine room contains Simon Shaw and Bakkies Botha and there’s a front five to give any side the willies.
Sheridan is enjoying packing down with some of his old England buddies, but what gives him a greater buzz is playing alongside one-time opponents, like Botha. “He’s not at all what I expected. It was always very tough playing against Bakkies, but in fact he’s very humorous, very witty, and an all-round great guy.”
The fans are also desperate for trophies. Few, if any clubs in France, have supporters are rabid as Toulon’s and Sheridan says he’s been recognised more times on the streets of Toulon in the last two months than he was during nine years in Manchester. “They love their rugby so much down here,” he says, laughing softly. “We had our first home game a couple of weeks ago and I’ve never experienced anything like it. When you arrive at the stadium, the fans form a tunnel about 50 or 60 metres long, that goes from the bus to the (stadium) entrance. It’s amazing to walk through it.”
As for the rugby in France, Sheridan says there are some small but significant differences between the Top 14 and the English Premiership. “It’s more set-piece dominant over here,” he says. “There are more scrums, more close-quarter forward work – mauling, pick and go, driving from lineouts – and in general I think forwards in the Top 14 are a little bigger. I’m not saying they’re small in the Premiership but over here they’re more thickset.”
It’s exactly a year since Sheridan won the last of his 42 Test caps, an abbreviated appearance in England’s World Cup opener against Argentina. That troublesome left shoulder of his went pop and off he traipsed, not just out of the match but also the tournament. Some people even suggested we’d never again see Sheridan squeeze his 6ft 5in and 125kg frame into one of those tight England shirts.
“I’ve no contact with England. The RFU have put a lot of money into the game and it’s right they give preference to England-based players. I understand why they would concentrate on trying to develop younger players.”
Having said that, he stresses he would love to play again for England and if Toulon does possess miracle powers then we could yet see the second coming of Sheridan.