Tuesday 26 March 2019

Neil Francis: ''The Bus' and Toulon were an accident waiting to happen'


Julian Savea of New Zealand is tackled by Andrew Trimble at the Aviva in 2016
Julian Savea of New Zealand is tackled by Andrew Trimble at the Aviva in 2016
Dire straits: ‘The last thing Julian Savea needs now is his wife trying to bat for him on social media' Photo: Stephen McCarthy/Sportsfile
Neil Francis

Neil Francis

In June 2012, Ireland played a three-match Test series against the All Blacks in New Zealand. When PRO14 players tell you in interviews that playing away to Zebre is a tough place to go - you think, well, everything is relative.

It was a weird series, starting with a 42-10 standard thumping and sandwiched in between a proper 60-0 trouncing in Hamilton was a gem of a Test match in Christchurch where Ireland went down 22-19.

Our favourite Welsh referee did us no favours that day in a match that Ireland should have won.

The All Blacks were nigh on untouchable at that stage but Ireland got down and dirty with them and gave them a real scare.

The headlines though were from the first Test where Julian Savea, a 21-year-old debutant, scored a sensational hat-trick.

Savea's speed, physique and power were just awesome and we didn't have to think too hard about why the kid was called 'The Bus'.

The new Jonah Lomu had arrived and New Zealanders would rejoice again as one of their own performed like a bowling ball in knocking over Celtic and Anglo-Saxon skittles on the way to scoring some sensational tries.


Everyone wanted a piece of Savea - except his opposite number - and overnight he turned from a shy, inarticulate boy into a superstar.

That month Savea literally became the poster boy for the Te Rito Wellington Family Violence Network, which is an affiliate of the social development ministry.

Its campaign slogan 'it's not OK' was to draw attention to domestic violence.

Ten months later Savea was arrested for a serious assault on Dawn Rodgers, his partner and mother of his one-year-old child. Savea avoided jail and a conviction and pleaded guilty.

It's hard to tour some countries with the All Blacks if you have a conviction for assault.

Savea got off lightly; things kind of get 'sorted' when rugby stars are involved.

His career took off and he won the World Cup with New Zealand in England.

In the quarter-final in Cardiff, Savea ran amok against a French side that still hasn't recovered from that 62-15 shellacking and scored yet another hat-trick in a sensational display.

Toulon's owner Mourad Boudjellal was an interested spectator at that match.

Fame tends to take the edge off some athletes' performance and by the time the 2016 Super Rugby season had started Savea was not even a guaranteed starter for the Hurricanes.

The All Blacks didn't like his work ethic, his attitude or his physical conditioning and they picked Israel Dagg, Nehe Milner-Skudder, Waisake Naholo and Rieko Ioane ahead of him whenever they could.

Capped at 21, it became obvious that his All Black career was over just five years later.

He still had at least six or seven years of professional rugby ahead of him. What would the next move be for Savea?

Boudjellal came in with a crazy offer of a two-year contract for €1.1m per annum. All Savea had to do was make sure there was ink in the pen when the contract was presented.

Savea's inadequacies and flaws came to the fore almost the moment he landed in Toulon.

In November, while still try-less for the season, Savea flipped his car on the motorway late at night.

The car was a write-off but miraculously 'The Bus' managed to walk from the car in one piece.

Savea's wife posted on Instagram that he had been involved in a serious motoring accident late at night - it gave the first clue as to what might be going on in his life.

Posting to the world that your husband has been involved in a serious motoring incident is just not a clever thing to do. His wife then compounded the issue by saying that there was no alcohol involved.

"Firstly he has been sober for 8 months", she posted, before adding, "Woohoo".

There was absolutely no upside in making that statement - the corollary being that he was not sober up until eight months ago.

Savea married Fatima when she was 21 and it seems she was addicted to social media and sharing her married life with any platform that cared.

The incident was 'sorted' again and a few weeks after the crash the Saveas headed to Fiji to attend the wedding of Julian's younger brother, and current All Black back-rower, Ardie.

Provision had been made for this in Savea's contract but not for the further month-long holiday he took either side of the wedding.

Coming up to the Agen game last week, which Toulon lost 19-10, Savea had scored one try in 11 matches.

Savea's performance last Saturday, for someone who is paid more than €1 million a season, was a disgrace.

Boudjellal threw the toys out of the pram.

"I'm going to ask for a DNA test. They must have swapped him on the plane. If I were him I would apologise and go back to my home country. I've told him that he was free to go and wasn't welcome in Toulon anymore."

The reaction on social media by 'the fans' was predictable.

"I hope your mum gets cancer as soon as possible."

"You have more boobs than your wife, fatman."

Clearly Savea's conditioning and form are poor - the last thing you do is engage with morons on the other side of a laptop.

Maybe Savea's wife is a guru on backline tactics but now is not the time to open up about it.

"When you see the frustration in your husband's face - I swear this team doesn't know how to pass."

It's hard for your team-mates to rally around you when you play like you don't care and your wife blames the rest of the team for your woes.

Savea stated the following day that he was going to train with the team that day whether he was welcome or not.

Savea's agent's mind is still lucid amongst another car crash - Boudjellal would have to pay him off for the rest of the season and next year. He would, though, have to turn up for training and be available.

The die is cast but there won't be a huge queue of suitors and this rugby edition of the 'Jerry Springer Show' can only end badly.

The conclusions? All Black superstar wingers have come and gone in a blur. Capped early, gone early.

Lomu was capped at 19, gone at 27. Joe Rokocoko was capped at 20, gone at 27. Va'aiga Tuigamala was capped at 20, gone at 24, Savea was capped at 21, gone at 26.


There are parallels with Lomu. Lomu too was mentally vulnerable, immature and easily influenced.

Savea scored 46 tries in 54 Tests. Some were the product of his awesome speed, power and athleticism when he was at the top of his game.

How many of those tries were run-ins though?

How many were made easier by the sublime passing of players such as Dan Carter and Conrad Smith?

We forget that Mathieu Bastareaud, who cannot pass off either hand, is inside Savea.

Sometimes it is easy to be awesome in an All Black side. Your flaws and limitations are never really exposed.

When you leave that environment you find out how good you really are.

Lastly, we expect ridiculous outbursts from Boudjellal but the way he has dealt with Savea is a disgrace. The question has to be asked - who is doing the buying?

Boudjellal does not seem to have an ounce of rugby in his brain and would not have a clue about exactly what he bought and what mental and physical condition they were in.

While you are giving Savea both barrels Mourad, save one for yourself.

Irish Independent

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