Hands up those who this time last year had heard of ‘Tommy’ Tommaso Allan? The odd aficionado of age-group rugby, perhaps, who had seen the young fly-half play for Western Province U19 or Scotland U20 but for most of us the name was as unknown as a cold snap on the Cote d’Azur.
Twelve months on and the 21-year-old Allan has won ten caps for Italy and is one of the players Perpignan are looking to as they seek to drag themselves out of ProD2 and back into the Top 14.
It was some season last year for Perpignan. The men in the blood and gold shirts were relegated to the second rung of French rugby for the first time in 103 years, a humiliation that shocked the sport on the other side of the Channel.
Just five years earlier Perpignan had won the Top 14 title and they began last season with victories over Castres, Montpellier and Toulouse in the opening few weeks. Life looked good, not just for USAP but also for Allan, who made his senior club debut – and his first professional appearance – in the 19-16 defeat away at Racing Metro. It was a polished performance by Allan, who scored 11 points in the narrow defeat and more than held his own against Racing’s Johnny Sexton, recently returned from starring for the British and Irish Lions Down Under.
Then it all fell apart. Five consecutive defeats in the run up to Christmas, allied to a season-ending injury to fly-half Camille Lopez, shattered the squad’s morale. Defeat followed defeat in 2014 as Perpignan began the inexorable slide towards the wilderness of ProD2. The question now is will they bounce straight back into the Top 14 or will they go the way of Pau, Beziers and Dax, once distinguished clubs who have languished in the ProD2 for years following relegation?
Allan is confident Perpignan’s stay in the second division will be a short one. “Morale is really good in the squad,” he says, a couple of days after the players returned from a five day beasting at the French army’s commando training centre. “The purpose of it was to work on squad cohesion and bonding. We’ve a lot of new players [12 in total] but most of the squad has been together since the start of June so we’ve got to know each other well.”
Allan only linked up with the squad a fortnight ago, arriving late because of international duty with Italy. He made his Test debut against Australia in November, subsequently appearing in all five of Italy’s Six Nations matches. Back in the autumn there was much discussion in the British media as to whether Allan would choose Italy – his birthplace and where his mother is from – or Scotland, where his paternal allegiances lie. “I made the decision to play for Italy pretty quickly,” says Allan. “I suppose there was a bit of pressure but I had all my family behind me and that helped.” One of Allan’s relatives, uncle John, knows all about split loyalties, having won nine caps as Scotland hooker before collecting a further 13 for the Springboks following South Africa’s return to international rugby in the early 1990s. “John helped in saying that I would have more opportunities playing for Italy than I would Scotland,” says Allan.
Those opportunities came his way last season but at times Allan admits it was a challenge for one so young to adapt to the rigours of Test rugby while also shouldering the responsibility of kicking goals for his country. “Honestly, it was quite tough,” he admits. “I had to really work on the mental side of my kicking and just being able to handle the pressure. I wasn’t kicking at Perpignan because of James Hook so it was hard to then do it for Italy.”
James Hook and Camille Lopez have both left Perpignan in the wake of their relegation, a blow to the club in their quest for promotion, but at the same time an opportunity for Allan. Contrary to reports in the French press, he never entertained thoughts of joining Treviso and is determined to help lead USAP back to the Top 14. “I didn’t know anything about a move to Italy until I read about it in the newspaper. It was like ‘Oh yeah! Really?’ I can understand why James and Lopez moved but for me I see it as a chance to really develop as a fly-half because I’ll have more game time.
“Last season my game management was the single biggest improvement for me. I started to read and understand the game better and I want to keep developing this season.”
Allan admits he knows little about the ProD2 but he’s expecting some ding-dong encounters. “Obviously our target is to go straight back up but the ProD2 is competitive. We’ll be playing clubs we haven’t played for years and all of them will be wanting to beat us because of who we are and the fact we’ve just been relegated.”
It’s not just the Perpignan players who are determined to return to the Top 14 at the first opportunity. The fanatical rugby public in Catalan country have recovered from the shock of relegation to rally behind their boys and more than 5,000 season tickets have already been sold more than a month before the first game, the same number as were sold in the whole of last season . When club president François Rivière, who takes as his role model Toulon chief Mourad Boudjellal, presented this season’s squad to the public more than 2,000 Catalans turned up to cheer each one of the 38-man group. “The atmosphere wasn’t too good in the days after [relegation],” concedes Allan. “It was best to stay at home out of sight! But everybody’s got behind the club again now. Rugby means a great deal in this part of the world and we all want to be back in the Top 14.”