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Dublin: 18 °C Thursday 31 July, 2014

What would Jamie Heaslip be getting himself into in France?

We take a look at the lie of the land in Montpellier and Toulon, both rumoured destinations for the Ireland No. 8.

Image: ©INPHO/Andrew Fosker

RUMOURS PERSIST REGARDING the future of Jamie Heaslip, with the latest of them suggesting that the Ireland No. 8 is in talks with Montpellier and Toulon.

Those suggestions back up the gossip in French rugby circles in recent weeks, and both of those Top 14 clubs are in the market for a No. 8. We’ve taken a look at what Heaslip would be getting himself into if he joins either.

Toulon

The reigning Heineken Cup champions are at a difficult point in their existence. The policy of recruiting experienced, proven winners paid dividends with that European success, but owner Mourad Boudjellal is now beginning to realise that his squad is past its peak. His answer is to pursue “rejuvenation”, namely by bringing in younger players.

At 30, Heaslip does not exactly fit into that category, but he would be seen as a direct replacement for 34-year-old Chris Masoe next season. Joe van Niekerk [33] is also on his way out of Toulon, so there is a great need for a No. 8 on the Mediterranean coast. There is a guaranteed starting role for Heaslip if he decides to join Toulon.

Boudjellal’s wealth is oft-cited, and the fact that Toulon are so willing to handsomely reward their star men is another attractive factor. RCT currently have at least four of the top ten highest-paid players in France on their books, including Jonny Wilkinson, Matt Giteau and Bryan Habana. Their annual budget of more than €24 million means Heaslip would be well remunerated.

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Proven winners. ©INPHO/James Crombie.

The fact that the likes of Wilkinson have extended their playing careers in Toulon points to another of the major draws. The climate on the southern coast of France means Bernard Laporte’s squad rarely train without the sun on their backs, while the fresh Mediterranean sea aids recovery. For a man like Heaslip, so conscientious about avoiding injury, it would be ideal.

As for how the Irishman would fit into the Toulon playing style, his ball carrying demands would be greatly increased. Laporte demands that his players win the collisions in every game, whether they are keeping it tight or putting width on the ball. Toulon rarely come off second best in contact, and Heaslip would need to make more of the surging runs that helped him first shoot to international fame in 2009.

Accusations that Boudjellal has assembled a squad purely based on cash are wide of the mark; there is a strong team spirit at Toulon, something Heaslip would certainly appreciate. The fact that the majority of the squad also speak English would make it even easier to settle.

Heaslip would likely fit straight into the Toulon squad, and if his signature was matched by two or three other youthful signings, a tilt at the Top 14 would be very realistic.

Montpellier

One of the newest clubs in France, having been formed as recently as 1986, Montpellier are likely to be giants in the near future. Rugby in France is gradually changing from a game dominated by small, provincial towns to being a sport of the major cities. The rapidly-increasing population of the city of Montpellier means the rugby club is soon to be a powerhouse.

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Stade Yves du Manoir in Montpellier. ©INPHO/Presseye/Matt Mackey.

Having boosted their operating budget to the €20 million mark this season, les Héraultais have already joined the big boys in the Top 14 and the recruitment of the likes of Rene Ranger, Jim Hamilton, Rob Ebersohn and Sitaleki Timani points to the fact that they have very serious ambitions. With the wealth of Mohad Altrad [€600 million] behind them, more recruitment is on the way.

The fact that Montpellier are a truly emerging force may be attractive to Heaslip, particularly as he would be a key man. Scottish No. 8 Johnnie Beattie is on his way out of the club, although the explosive Kiwi Alex Tulou would provide decent opposition to the Irishman. Nonetheless, head coach Fabien Galthié is keen to harness Heaslip’s experience in a team lacking in that attribute.

The former France scrum-half likes his side to play a high-tempo style of rugby, with passing out of contact favoured. François Trinh-Duc is the man whom the side is built around, a mercurial playmaker whose mental strength and tactical kicking remain in doubt. Defensively, Galthié’s preference for an aggressive rush would sit well with Heaslip. Overall, it’s a good fit on the pitch.

Off it, Montpellier are in the process of building a distinct culture. Being such a young club means they have very few reference points in the past. That is rare in French rugby, where the achievements of team eons ago are very much still held in high regard. Heaslip might enjoy the task of leading the building of an environment off the pitch as Montpellier look to create new history.

Players talk about ‘new challenges’ every time they switch club, but that is truly what Heaslip would be getting in this case.

What are your thoughts on a possible move to France for Heaslip? Would it be disastrous?

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