An end of an era is approaching in Perpignan and the fans are getting teary at the prospect. After nine seasons loosehead prop Perry Freshwater is retiring at the end of the season and his loss will be immeasurable to the Catalan club, writes Gavin Mortimer.
The New Zealand-born Englishman arrived at Perpignan in 2003 after eight years with Leicester Tigers and it was with the French club that Freshwater won all his ten caps – including two appearances during England’s memorable 2007 World Cup campaign.
Perry, who turns 39 in July, has finally surrendered to Old Father Time after a career in which he won two Heineken Cup titles with the Tigers and was a member of the first Perpignan side to lift the Top 14 crown for 54 years. At both clubs the Wellington-born front rower became something of a cult hero, earning his own fan club during his days at Welford Road (‘The Perry Freshwater Appreciation Society”) and gaining folk status in the Mediterreanan city. As France and Perpignan prop Nicolas Mas told me in an interview last year: “Perry is more Catalan than English now! He’s a great example of a player who’s come to here and become one of the family. He’s played in New Zealand and Leicester but he’s most at home here, and we’re proud to have him.”
Freshwater’s last home appearance for Perpignan will be in two weeks’ time against Lyon but the big man’s certainly going out with a bang, helping the club recently to resounding victories over Bayonne (47-9) and Toulouse (25-10), wins that have pulled Perpignan clear of the relegation zone.
After the thrashing of Bayonne the Perpignan fans saluted Freshwater as he and his teammates did a lap of honour, chanting “Perry! Perry”. It was recognition of his commitment to the club during his time at the club in which he’s made over 120 appearances including 22 this season. Freshwater for his part will be sorry to say au revoir to Perpignan’s passionate rugby supporters. “To be saluted like that, it’s a big honour,” confessed Freshwater, who is returning to New Zealand with his young family
“My wife and I have all our family over there,” explained Freshwater after the Bayonne match. “And I want my two youngest daughters, Ella and Aurelie, to become bi-lingual like their elder sister, and not to become like their dad, who talks French like a Spanish cow!”
It’s more than 20 years since Freshwater played for New Zealand Schoolboys against their Welsh counterparts, before going on to win honours for the NZ Under-21 side. He subsequently moved to England (where his dad lived before going to sea and eventually settling in Wellington) and made his Leicester debut in 1995. It was another ten years before he won his first England cap, against Samoa at Twickenham, a debut that was long overdue in the eyes of many front-row experts.
Now, as he prepares to be put out to grass, Freshwater can look back with pride over a career in which, while he might have talked French like a Spanish cow, he scrummed like a New Zealand bull.