By Gavin Mortimer
THERE’LL BE a new face in the Top 14 next season, captained by an old face , and an English one at that. Former Bristol flanker Joe El-Abd joined Oyonnax last summer after three seasons with Toulon, a stint on the Cote d’Azur that had him sharing a dressing room with some of the greats of the game: Jonny Wilkinson, Sonny Bill Williams, George Smith and Tana Umaga to name but a few.
In swapping Toulon for Oyonnax the 33-year-old went from riches to rags. That’s no disrespect to the club that nestles in a valley 20 miles west of Geneva, but with a population of just 23,000 Oyonnax (the ‘x’ is silent) is – as far as El-Abd knows – the smallest town ever to boast a Top 14 team. “Our total budget for this season was €5.5m, which was about the seventh biggest in the Pro2,” explains El-Abd, who lives in the town with his wife and two small children.
It was their wish to continue living in France that led El-Abd to choose Oyonnax over a couple of offers from clubs back home last summer. “I didn’t know much about the club when they first contacted my agent,” admits El-Abd, who grew up in Brighton and preferred football to rugby until he arrived at Bath University. “But when I met the club president and the coach, Christophe Urios, it was a done deal almost immediately.”
El-Abd didn’t come to Oyonnax as captain but a couple of pre-season training camps convinced Urios that the Englishman with the Egyptian father was the man to lead the club for the 2012-13 season.
“We started the season as one of the outsiders,” says El Abd, who like the majority of the Oyonnax squad has never had a sniff of an international cap. Just down from the road from Oyonnax is Lyon, a side full of stars, including former French captain Lionel Nallet and rugby celebrity Sebastien Chabal.
But while Lyon’s attempt to return to the Top 14 soon hit the buffers, Oyonnax just kept winning and winning.
El-Abd puts their success down to canny recruitment on the part of the club. “They were very shrewd in picking up players who hadn’t quite made it at other bigger clubs,” explains El-Abd. “So they all had something to prove, particularly the French players who were overlooked elsewhere.”
Arguably no one had more to prove than fly-half Benjamin Urdapilleta, the Argentine who spent his two seasons at Harlequins warming the bench but rarely getting a run out ahead of Nick Evans and Rory Clegg. Urdapilleta arrived at Oyonnax in the summer and has been the catalyst for so much of the club’s impressive displays (they’ve lost just four of their 27 games in Pro2). In scoring 207 points, the South American has also formed an excellent understanding with scrum-half Julien Audy, who left Bayonne following the arrival of Mike Phillips.
For the moment, says El-Abd, Oyonnax are still revelling in the sensation of being crowned Pro2 champions three weeks before the last game of the season. Next month they’ll turn their attention to the Top 14. “Obviously it’s going to be very tough,” concedes El-Abd. “If we had one of the smaller budgets in the Pro2 then we’ll definitely have the smallest in the Top 14 but we’ll do the best with what we’ve got. We’re a team of hard workers, we’ve got a tremendous spirit and there are some very talented players here.”
If one considers that Clermont’s total budget for this season is €35m then the size of the task facing Oyonnax is evident. But the club is at least situated in what the French call ‘Plastics Valley’, a wealthy industrial area with many big, flourishing businesses. “I think the president will speak to the businesses and ask if they’ll be able to give us any more,” says El-Abd. “And we’ll also target certain players in our recruitment who we think will fit in well.”
El-Abd is delighted at the prospect of a return to the Top 14. He admits that in moving to Oyonnax his career was beginning to wind down but thanks in no small part to his captaincy, and his powerful performances in the back-row, he’ll be leading Oyonnax into the Top 14 for their first time in their history. And for many of the squad it will be their first taste of the big-time too, but not for El-Abd. “It’s going to be a great challenge,” he declares. “And there’ll be no pressure on us.”
Follow Gavin Mortimer on Twitter @gavinmortimer7