Toulon openside Steffon Armitage talks about his England exclusion, Toulon's season and the Champions Cup
As the RFU’s review panel continue to sift through the wreckage of England’s disastrous World Cup campaign, fans are left to wonder how things might have turned out had head coach Stuart Lancaster selected his France-based players. But he didn’t, so Steffon Armitage and Nick Abendanon – European Players of the Year in 2014 and 2015 – watched from afar as England failed to make it out of the pool stage. While the Clermont full-back has been a vocal critic of England’s short-sighted selection policy, Armitage has chosen not to speak. Until now. For the first time the 30-year-old openside, so sorely missed at the breakdown against Australia, reflects on the past and ponders the future.
Four defeats in seven matches – what’s going on at Toulon this season?
We’re adapting to a lot of new players, about 20 in total, and a lot are quite young. Just because you play for Toulon it doesn’t mean you’re a champion. You have to earn it, but I think that will come. In the games we’ve lost this season it’s been because of our own mistakes, not because we’ve been outplayed.
Is the departure of Botha, Masoe, Williams and Hayman a factor?
To lose four guys like that is massive. They brought so much leadership to the team and we all looked up to them. We need more leaders to come forward and for all of us to put in extra effort.
There’s lots of gossip about who’ll be coaching Toulon next season. What’s your take on it all?
I just focus on my game and forget everything else. These things happen in French rugby but once I start talking about rumours it kind of rattles me, so I just keep my head down and play rugby.
What are your thoughts on facing Wasps, Leinster and Bath in your Champions Cup pool?
It’s the Pool of Death but to be champions you have to beat everyone. Our target is to win a fourth consecutive title.
You’ve kept a dignified silence throughout the last six months. Has it been hard?
Yes, but I’ve always done my talking on the pitch and not in the press. The coach has his view in not picking me so all I could do was keep playing rugby. I hoped I might get in but it didn’t happen and I had to deal with it.
Were you surprised at England’s World Cup campaign?
Yes, especially losing two games at home. Twickenham’s meant to be a fortress but it didn’t work at all, and I think everyone should be disappointed at the way things happened.
Do you feel for Chris Robshaw?
I do feel sorry for him because I think he needed some rivalry (in the England squad) to push him on. Whether he’s a world-class seven or not, I can’t judge that, but he always works as hard as he can and gives everything on the pitch.
Explain your expertise at the breakdown.
Winning turnovers is more than just technique. It’s about using the brain, playing smart, and knowing when to go into the breakdown and when not. You have to be honest and know that you can’t win them all, so it’s up to you to pick the right ones. I’m always there or thereabouts at the breakdown and I’ll look at it, and if I think I have a chance I’ll go in.
Nick Abendanon called those England players who campaigned against your inclusion in the RWC squad ‘pathetic’. Do you agree?
Definitely. I know them, played against them, and to hear them say we’d be a distraction if selected was pretty insulting. At the end of the day all we wanted to do was make the team better and I just think it was wrong for players to say what they did. We could have learnt from each other and created more rivalry for places.
Why did you come to France?
I took a risk coming to France because there was no guarantee when I arrived at Toulon I would be playing regularly. I’ve been competing against Juan Fernandez Lobbe, Chris Masoe, Danie Rossouw, Joe van Niekerk, George Smith and others. People talk about the money, but I put a lot on the line when I came here. I did so because I wanted to become a better player but it feels like I’ve been punished (by England) for doing that.
What would you say to those who said you had your England chance in 2009-10 and didn’t take it in five Tests?
I’ve improved a lot since then. Having guys around me like I have in Toulon has changed the way I play and the way I think. I’m smarter on the pitch and I have learnt so much in France.
Do you still harbour ambitions of playing for England?
It’s a tough situation. What happened with England hit me hard. There was talk I’d be involved and all of a sudden that hope was taken away. I’ve always played rugby because I love it, but that really hurt. I’m getting the enjoyment back now at Toulon but as far as England goes at the moment I’m undecided. Right now my focus is on Toulon. I’m contracted to them until the end of next season and I love it here.