By Gavin Mortimer
IN THE letters page of the latest issue of Midi Olympique one irate reader has addressed the editor in no uncertain terms on why the Top 14 isn’t helping the national side: ‘Limit the Number of Foreigners’ his rant begins. Oh, the irony! For this Saturday at Twickenham France will be hoping that one of these same etrangers can get in among the English back-row.
Antonie Claassen has been selected by Philippe Saint-Andre because so far this Six Nations France have lacked the power and dynamism in the back row of their English rivals. Louis Picamoles was horribly one-paced against Wales, Thierry Dusautoir is struggling for fitness after his autumn knee injury, and doubts persist that Fulgence Ouedrago, for all his undoubted athleticism, is more Top 14 than Test arena.
So Saint-Andre has turned to Claassen, the 28-year-old from Durban whose father, Wynand, captained the Springboks in the early 1980s from the back-row. Claassen senior has had a marked influence on his son’s life, bequeathing Antonie his rugby talent but also a strength of character that has stood the young man in good stead in the last few years.
A decade ago Claassen was tipped to become a Bok, but injury disrupted his steady progress through South Africa’s representative ranks – he played for the Baby Boks in the U19 world cup – and in 2007 he was spending most of his time at the Blue Bulls warming the bench. Claassen turned to his dad for advice, and Wynand suggested a spell in France, where he himself had spent a season in the twilight of his career. Wynand had returned from Europe a confirmed Francophile, to such an extent that Antonie grew up cheering for the likes of Abdel Benazzi, Thierry Lacroix and – of course Saint-Andre – when he tuned into the Five Nations in the 1990s.
Claassen arrived in France with the intention of joining his dad’s old club, Marmande, a so-so side in the Federale One [Division Three]. But then an old pal, former Cats flanker Gerhard Vosloo, heard of his arrival in France, and arranged for a trial with Brive, even though they had finished recruiting for the 2007-08 season at the time. Nonetheless coach Laurent Seigne was so impressed with what he saw he pulled a few strings with the directors – and with Marmande – and Claassen signed for Brive in January 2008.
The 6ft 3in and 16 stone Claassen, who rose to captain Brive, left the club for Castres last summer, a move he credits with reinvigorating his career. A powerful ball-carrier guaranteed to make the hard yards, Claassen is also quick, skilful and he relishes the dirty work, groping around on the deck with the best of them. He has also exceptional stamina, another gift bestowed on him by his family: his grandfather was one of South Africa’s top ultra-marathon runners in the early 1960s.
Claassen has in the past spoken of the difficulty in learning French when he arrived at Brive. In one sense he didn’t really have to, the club at the time boasted a dozen or more English-speaking players but Claassen was determined to master the language. “I spent a lot of time with the French [players],” he said. “I avoided the Anglo-Saxons.”
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On Saturday Claassen will be getting stuck right in to the ‘Anglo-Saxons’, and if Les Bleus triumph at Twickenham then there won’t be a man or woman in France who’ll give a hoot about his nationality.
Follow Gavin Mortimer on Twitter @gavinmortimer7