Bayonne full-back Scott Spedding looks ahead to the new Top 14 season, the opening game against Toulon and the chance of playing for France

THE SOUTH Africa-born Scott Spedding was one of the few consistent performers last season for Bayonne as the Basque club narrowly avoided relegation. Starting all but one of their 26 Top 14 matches, the 28-year-old full-back was even mentioned as a possible contender for the French squad having qualified on residency.

With a new coach in former Wallaby and Argentina prop Patricio Noriega, Bayonne host champions Toulon at the Stade Jean Dauger on Friday week in the opening match of the new Top 14 season. Spedding tells Rugby World about his hopes for the coming season, his dream of playing for France and his very famous friend from his schooldays.

Rugby World: All change at Bayonne this season with a new president and a new coach. Let’s start with Patricio Noriega…

Scott Spedding: He’s a coach who is very open to player input. He has his leaders, the senior players, and he likes to have meetings with these leaders to hear what they have to say. He wants players to take charge of what is happening because when the game starts it’s them out there and he’s helpless.

RW: So unlike a lot of coaches in France he wants players to assume responsibility?

SS: Yes. Some coaches take away the responsibility of captains because they are on the sidelines telling them what to do with a penalty or what tactics to use.

Patricio Noriega

Fresh approach: new Bayonne coach Patricio Noriega takes charge at training

RW: Any other innovations from Patricio?

SS: Every morning we come in and have breakfast together. It’s pretty cool because we can spend time together chatting about things other than rugby.

RW: A new president, too, in Manu Mérin. Has he made a difference yet?

SS: The change at top of the club has been very good because Manu Mérin is from Bayonne so he knows the town’s history and traditions. There was a feeling that the team had almost been taken away from the town. Last month was the Fêtes de Bayonne, a five-day festival that in the past we’ve missed because we have been on a training camp.

This year the president wanted us there because it’s our town. So we spent a day there as a squad, walking around and visiting supporters’ bars. Just being part of the town.

RW: Bayonne narrowly avoided relegation last season. What went wrong?

SS: Last season was really difficult. We had a lot of off-the-field dramas that often seemed to erupt just before big games. We’d be lying if we said they didn’t affect the players. We would start talking about what was in the papers rather than the match at the weekend.  There was also the talk of a fusion with Biarritz that left us uncertain about our future. But that’s no excuse – we weren’t very good on the field.

RW: Confident this season will be different?

SS: The new president wants to bring stability to club so the players can work in peace and quiet. The club is on the right track.

Scott Spedding

Basque glory: Nemiah Tialata and Scott Spedding celebrate beating Biarritz last season

RW: Biarritz didn’t avoid the drop, leaving Bayonne the only Basque club in the Top 14. Good news?

SS: Having two Top 14 clubs just 4km from each other made it tough to get sponsors so I think it could help to have just one Top 14 club in the region. Tough on Biarritz but could be a good step for Bayonne.

RW: Only four additions to the Bayonne squad this season but a lot of youngsters coming through. What’s the morale like pre-season?

SS: Whether it’s because of financial reasons or Manu Mérin taking over a lot of youngsters have come into the squad and most are from this area (46% of Bayonne’s squad have come from the club’s academy). They bring to the club a huge amount of pride and energy. Playing for the club means everything to them and they are desperate to prove themselves.

RW: Are you a French citizen yet?

SS: I’ve applied but my file is still going through the process.

RW: Was it a decision you thought long and hard about?

SS: Not really. I arrived here aged 21 and I’ve spent most of my adult life in France. I have a lot of friends here so to get a French passport and to become French, I’d really like that to happen because I love the way of life.

RW: And perhaps play for France?

SS: They haven’t spoken to me but I have never hidden my ambition to play for les Bleus. It would be a dream come true.

RW: Your thoughts when you saw that Bayonne kick off the new campaign against Toulon?

SS: What a great way to start! Doesn’t get any bigger than playing the double champions and we’ll be pumped up. It’s at home so the atmosphere will be unbelievable and everyone is so excited by it.

RW: Have Toulon lost a bit of their fear factor now that Jonny has retired?

SS: Everyone was a little star-struck playing against Jonny Wilkinson but you look around the Toulon squad and it was far from just him running the show. They have world-class players in all positions so I don’t think Toulon will lack for quality this season.

RW: Finally, what’s this about you and 2013 Tour de France champion Chris Froome being old schoolmates?

SS: We were together at St John’s College, a boarding school in Johannesburg, for four years. It’s crazy for me to see him as such a big star. I caught up with him at one of the stage starts of the Tour de France last year. I went up and said ‘hello’ and thank goodness he remembered me!

Don’t miss the Top 14 preview in the September 2014 issue of Rugby World – on sale now.