By Gavin Mortimer
IT’S A funny old game, rugby, as Jamie Noon will testify. Son of Yorkshire, servant of Newcastle and now stalwart of Brive, the former England centre brings down the curtain on his professional career on Sunday, in Bordeaux of all places, about as far removed from Goole as you could wish to find. True, they’re both ports, but there’s not much sun, and even less wine, in the Yorkshire town where Noon was born 34 years ago.
The fact that he’s bowing out in Bordeaux, playing for Brive against Pau in the Pro2 play-off final, is proof of how far Noon has come – literally and metaphorically – since he first pulled on a Newcastle shirt in the late 1990s. Back then Noon was one of the Falcons’ young guns, that posse of precocious talent which included Jonny Wilkinson, Michael Stephenson, Dave Walder and Tom May. Now fifteen years of life as a professional sportsmen is about to end, and Noon is honest enough to admit he’s approaching the next phase of his life with more than a little trepidation. “I’m nervous,” he says. “As a professional rugby player you train, prepare and play, so you always know more or less what to expect out of life. Now I’m about to go into the unknown, trying to get a job against guys who are younger and carry degrees and other qualifications. I’m 34, with three young children to feed, so yes, definitely I’m nervous. On the plus side, however, as a professional sportsmen you live off a fierce competitive spirit, so I hope I can use that to flourish in a different arena.”
Noon has plans, ambitious ones that are as bold as the manner in which he has graced the game for these past fifteen years. “I’m looking to become an agent,” he says, adding that he’s in the throes of obtaining his licence. But Noon wants to be more than just an agent. He aims to put his own vast experience to good use by mentoring young players as they make the transition from youth academy to professional club.
Noon intends to remain in France, advising British and Irish players looking to move across the Channel while also taking aspiring French youngsters under his wing. There are opportunities to be had in France as club rugby continues to soar, ideal for a man who is now an unabashed Francophile. “It’s funny how it’s worked out,” he explains. “The kids (his three children are aged eight, six and four) found it really tough at first. There were a lot of tears and getting them to go to school each morning was hard. Now they love it. They’ve really adapted to the French way of life and my wife and I decided we couldn’t uproot them and take them back to England.”
Noon loves the lifestyle, too, comparing the countryside around the rural town of Brive to that of his native Yorkshire, populated by a similar people with little pretension but an abundance of warmth.
Noon has felt much of that warmth from the moment he arrived at Brive in the summer of 2009. He came with a big reputation, a hard-running centre with 38 England caps, just one of a number of English players recruited by Brive, among whom were Steve Thompson, Andy Goode, Shaun Perry and Riki Flutey.
Reflecting on his first season at Brive (which resulted in Noon winning the coaches’ Player of the Year award), he says what helped him through was his philosophy. “I came with an open mind from the start. I struggled for the first couple of months but whereas some of the (English) boys got stressed and annoyed by certain things, I just thought I might as well go the French way. For eleven years in England I’d been really strict in my approach but in Brive I started drinking coffee – something we couldn’t do at Newcastle – and instead of living on brown pasta, rice and boiled chicken, I started eating what the French ate, which included steaks and a lot of cheese.”
Whereas some of Noon’s fellow Englishmen were never able to bridge the difference in cultures, he thrived in his new environment, earning the respect and admiration of team-mates and fans as a consequence. Fitting, then, that it was Noon who scored the decisive try in Brive’s win against Aurillac last weekend, a victory that secured them the right to challenge Pau on Sunday for a place in next season’s Top 14.
“That was a special moment,” reflects Noon. “It couldn’t have been better scripted, coming on for my last home game and scoring a try with my first touch that took us through to the final.”
The script may still have a final act to run. The game against Pau will be Noon’s 100th for Brive and all his family are coming over from England for the occasion. And among the 35,000-strong crowd in Bordeaux’s Stade Chaban-Delmas will be most of Brive, all willing Noon to go out on a high.