Agen back-rower Luke Hamilton opens up about life in France, battling relegation and how the Top 14 compares to the Pro12
Top 14 strugglers Agen haven’t had much to cheer this season but they do lead the field in one area – individual tackles made. Former Cardiff Blues back-rower Luke Hamilton had totted up 184 tackles by the end of February in 12 league appearances, and his performance in Agen’s defeat of La Rochelle last month won him a place in Midi Olympique‘s XV of the weekend. Rugby World spoke to Hamilton to hear how life in France is treating him…
Were you aware you’re the top tackler in the Top 14?
I’d been told about four weeks into the season I was, but I didn’t know I was still up there. But my shoulder is certainly feeling the effects. I’ve never made so many tackles in a season.
Why did you move to Agen in 2014?
The option of going to France came up and it was the good time to go. I’m young and had no family to take with me, so I thought I would give it a go. I went down to Agen, who were then in ProD2, talked to them and they said they saw me as a big part of the team and I thought I’d take a risk and go, rather than staying in Wales and only playing half-a-dozen games in a season.
Was it hard to leave the Blues?
I was out of contract (at the end of 2013-14). The season before I’d played a lot of games and then the year after I played only once before Christmas. I don’t know why. There was no communication. So I thought it was time to move on. I didn’t kick up a fuss. There’s not really much you can do because whatever you say isn’t going to change minds six months into the season.
What was your initial impression of Agen?
When I first came to have a look I thought it was a joke. The airport at Agen is one room and I was sitting in a chair in this room waiting. Opposite me were a group of people staring at me. I’d just shaved my hair so I don’t think they recognised me. Luckily Philippe Sella (Agen’s director of rugby) was one of the men and I recognised him so introductions were made. Philippe, who’s a really nice guy, showed me round and explained everything.
Did you settle in okay?
I was lucky that Denis Fogarty, the ex-Munster hooker, was at the club when I arrived. Without him I would have been stuck but he helped with everything. He also got me my most important thing – Sky television!
Are you fluent in French now?
In the first year we had three hours of French a week but it was a bit like being back at school. Then I was recommended an old couple, who used to give lessons to overseas players at the club. They’ve now become almost a second family, and me and Taylor Paris (Agen’s Canadian wing) have supper with this couple two or three times a week. It’s a great opportunity to talk French and also eat some lovely French cuisine.
Last season you won most matches; this season it’s the reverse. How does that affect the mindset?
Personally, playing last season in the ProD2, there were some weeks you’d turn up, not really play well and still win by 30 points. In the Top 14 if we don’t play our best we lose by 50 points. I see it as a challenge and I prefer playing tough games each week than going out to play a game that’s pretty much already won before you’ve gone on the field.
How does the Top 14 differ from the ProD2?
In the ProD2 you have a couple of quick games but it’s more running straight and hard. The Top14 is another level and I was quite shocked at first by the speed of the games. My first game was at Grenoble, which was very quick, but the Toulouse match the week after was even quicker. It was very hot and I’ve never felt so sick after a match. I was ill for about three days. Another difference is that in the ProD2, in a ruck, you’re always thinking to protect your face because they seem to get away with a lot more than in the Top 14.
Have you noticed a different approach to home and away matches in France?
Last season (in ProD2) there were some away games where our attitude was: ‘We’re not going to win here, don’t worry about it’. I found that a bit bizarre. This season it’s different because if we’re to survive we need to try to get something from each match.
What’s the atmosphere like at away games compared to back home?
It’s harder to win away in France because of the atmosphere at away matches. I didn’t think it could make such an impact but you get crowds of 10,000 here who can generate the noise of three times that number. People warn you about it but until you’ve actually experienced it you don’t know what it’s like. My first away game last season was in Perpignan and it was Henry Tuilagi’s first game back for them. He got the ball from the kick-off and went on a run. I couldn’t get over the noise. But it’s good, I enjoy it far more than some matches back home when you look around and think, ‘There’s hardly anyone here!’
Can Agen avoid the drop?
We believe we can. There have been one or two games when we haven’t turned up but most matches we’ve been in them for long periods but just haven’t managed to close them out. We have to stay positive.
What’s the difference in style between the Pro12 and the Top 14?
Firstly, it’s more structured in the Pro12 with everyone knowing what they are doing. In France anything can happen. Secondly, it’s more physical in France. There are some huge packs and when we played Toulon I couldn’t get over the size of their scrum. So often what happens in the Top 14 is that for the first 50 minutes it’s very physical with a lot of collisions. Then it begins to open up because they don’t spend so much time on fitness over here.
Any other differences?
I’ve found in France I am always fresh for the game, whereas sometimes at home we did so much training during the week I went into matches feeling tired and with sore legs. Here, it’s all about getting the result from the game, so your body isn’t as battered during the week. Another thing is the changing room huddle before going out onto the pitch. They (Agen forwards) headbutt each other. When we played Racing this year our prop split both eyebrows in the huddle. When I first came here I was warned about the huddle and advised: ‘Sit down, don’t stand up’!
You’ve played across the back row this year. Do you have a preference?
I’m best suited to playing seven in France. There are some huge No 8s in the Top 14, some 140kg boys, and the six isn’t far behind in size. Back home the seven is more the dogged, get-the-ball type but here it’s almost like a six and a half and that suits me.
What does the future hold?
I’m out of contract at the end of this season but I’d like to stay in France, preferably in the Top 14. I feel that if I go home I could end up back in the same position as before, doing it for the sake of doing it rather than really enjoying my rugby, which I am here.
For the latest Rugby World subscription offers, click here.