Perpignan prop Perry Freshwater is finally retiring from top flight rugby at age 38. Rugby Rugby’s Howard Johnson salutes an extraordinary player…
On Saturday I drove the three and a half hours from Chez Johnson down to Perpignan to witness what had the potential to be a nail-gnawing French Top 14 relegation crunch match between Perpignan and Bayonne. Both teams, expected to be strong competitors at the top end of the table at the start of the season, have endured frankly disastrous campaigns after both setting out with lofty ambitions. But after a whopping great 47-9 spanking at the hands of the home side it’s Bayonne who are now staring into the abyss. After considerable investment pre-season in the likes of Mike Phillips, Joe Rockocoko and Cédric Heymans you would have expected Bayonne to have at least posed some sort of threat, but their performance in Perpignan was beyond pathetic, shipping 31 points and scoring none at all in a totally abject second period. Quite what has gone wrong over on the south-west coast is hard to fathom, but they have a crunch Basque derby against their struggling neighbours Biarritz in two weeks’ time that has now taken on massive proportions. I’ll be there for what promises to be a firework-filled afternoon.
The point of this week’s column, though, isn’t to ridicule Bayonne, but to praise Perpignan – or rather one Perpignan player in particular. Former England prop Perry Freshwater, the man who by his own admission spent pretty much the entire 2007 Rugby World Cup “carrying tackle bags” (not strictly true, he played in two group games), is in the very last days of what has by any standards been an incredible professional career. Having left his native New Zealand for Leicester in England when he was just 21 years old, ‘Pezza’ made over 130 appearances for the Tigers from 1995 onwards, winning two Heineken Cup Final medals and establishing a reputation as a great player and a great bloke.
With his path to regular first team action blocked by the sizable frame of England international Graham Rowntree, though, Pezza moved on in 2003, opting to head down to the south coast of France by joining Perpignan. This, remember, in the days when a move across the channel was far from the norm and before France became the financially attractive draw it is today.
Things were certainly not the same under the Mediterranean sun. Having been used to Leicester’s ultra-professional, work-obsessed environment, Pezza suddenly found himself in an arena where things were done just that little bit differently. Dissatisfied with what he thought was an undercooked strength and conditioning programme, he once went and asked one of the staff if they could help him devise an additional personalised routine. The request was greeted with a bemused Gallic shrug and a simple piece of advice – “Eat more cheese!”
Yet despite this more chaotic approach, Pezza quickly found himself loving his new life, establishing himself as a fixture in the Perpignan front row and enjoying the everyday cut and thrust of life eyeballing a varied collection of grizzled, ‘no quarter giving’ opposition props. French rugby has long had a reputation for its intense physical confrontations and Pezza soon proved himself a prop who could go head to head and toe to toe with allcomers, week after week. His wholehearted approach quickly immediately endeared him to the club’s Catalan supporters, who bestowed on him the ultimate honour of re-naming him ‘Agua Fresca’ (you don’t need me to translate!). Freshwater’s legendary status was then further confirmed in 2009 when he was a vital member of the Perpignan team that won the French Top 14, the first time USAP had won the top flight title in 44 years! What’s more, it meant so much to him that he cried live on national telly when Perpignan beat Clermont in the Final in Paris. This only made the fans love him more, of course!
And now, with his 39th birthday fast approaching on July 27, Perry Freshwater has finally opted to hang up his boots. Imagine doing battle week-in, week-out with the hardest of the hard in the Top 14 front rows at such a ripe old age. They should cast the man a medal just for that! But what is even more impressive is that Freshwater has always gone about his work with an enthusiasm that would put men half his age to shame. And with a smile never, ever far from his lips. This is a man who knows how privileged he is to be playing rugby for a living and he’s never lost sight of that. Yes, I declare a personal interest. Pezza is a mate. But that shouldn’t colour your judgement of the man’s achievements. In a world where the word ‘legend’ is bandied about too frequently by the likes of me and my journalistic colleagues, here I have no hesitation in decreeing that Perry Freshwater really is a bona fide legend. And when he takes his leave at the end of this season the world of rugby will be an infinitely poorer place without him.
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