Former St Josephâ€™s College 1st XV fly half Dan Lewis will be writing a column for Fifteen Rugby this year, giving his account as an Espoir (senior academy player) in his second year at Oyannax in the French Top 14.
Below is Danâ€™s first â€˜Across the Channelâ€™ column, an insightful reflection on his first year in France, as he also explains what he hopes to achieve with his new column and prepares for a second year in France.
Across the Channel â€“ Dan Lewis
Some of the best rugby players in the world seem to have this ability to read, visualize and foresee what is about to happen in a game. They can predict, practically subconsciously, where the ball is going to go and can adapt instantly.
Life, however, is not always so easy to predict.
If youâ€™d asked me two years ago, I would never have said that playing rugby in France was a viable and realistic option. Even a year ago I didnâ€™t know that returning for a second season would be possible.
One of the many things that I have learned from my experience this past season is not only to take, but also to appreciate any opportunity given your way. But the main thing Iâ€™ve taken away is to try not to worry about a future you canâ€™t predict, or control as easily as you can a match.
This time last year, I packed my bags, said goodbye to many family and friends, and jumped on an EasyJet flight to Geneva (the closest airport to Oyonnax) and made the trip to France. Now, I know that France to England is not what youâ€™d call a long or demanding journey â€“ itâ€™s hardly climbing Everest. But at 18 with a mix of excitement, expectation and uncertainty, and for the first time true independence; itâ€™s a journey that requires an immense amount of support.
Luckily enough Iâ€™ve got an incredible support network in my family; and I think this is vital for any aspiring rugby player. To achieve your dreams, rugby or otherwise, support from parents and mentors is crucial. In my opinion itâ€™s an integral part of your development as a player and as a person.
For example; in the weeks before I moved to a country that speaks a language that I had never had a single lesson in, my sister came back from Uni and gave me a couple of lessons using her pretty impressive GCSE French, and although I wouldnâ€™t say I was a linguistic prodigy at that time, it was a start.
That wasnâ€™t the only new beginning. What really came to, not so much surprise me, but I guess you could test me, was that everything I have done over the past year has felt like I was doing it for the first time. Every day when I woke up, I knew I would have to do something that I had never done before; I would have to conquer something completely new to me, and wouldnâ€™t have the first clue as to what it would be.Â
Whether it was to open a French Bank account, buy a French phone, or Wi-Fi, it was all literally foreign to me. It may sound stupid, but something as simple as buying shampoo when every brand is different (and advertised in French) is actually ridiculously hardâ€¦ and as I take great pride in my hair, this was more stressful than I want to admit.
Thankfully, Oyonnax as a club but also a Town, were, and still are, incredibly helpful and provide much needed pastoral care, especially for their youngsters.
That wasnâ€™t the only thing that led me to realize that I was a very special club. Oyo has had a remarkable season. Reaching the barrage (QFâ€™s) of the Top14 for the first time in clubâ€™s history was simply epic. However, what was even more impressive was how the group of players stayed so humble and down to earth, especially when integrating with the younger Espoirs.
Now an Espoir, for anyone thatâ€™s unaware, is a player between the ages of 18 and 23, playing for a French Club in one of the highly competitive Espoir leagues â€“ similar to a senior academy in England. Itâ€™s a system that allows young players to develop in a challenging and testing environment, and in my personal opinion is one that can be even more challenging, but possibly even more beneficial for an Englishmen.
Players are forced to constantly improve when they change from playing for their club or school side, county, region, academy side etc. simply getting to play and train with unfamiliar faces is useful, adapt your skills to suit others, and learn from players youâ€™ve maybe only played against once before. Well I got to do that this year, except I got to do that in a whole new language!
My aim of writing this column is not to try and persuade anyone to do anything in their young rugby career, but merely to inform. I know I could have used something similar to this when I first left England.
Even if you canâ€™t predict the future like a match, it can help to know a little bit about what might be about to happen. And with more and more English youngsters preparing to make that leap over to France, I felt it might be a good idea to set down a couple of my French mis-adventures. Â
So, over this coming season, Ill be trying to give a little taste of what living and playing in France is like for a young aspiring rugby player. Iâ€™m going to try and give a heads up for anyone thinking of doing the same, or just to write a column that I hope will be interesting!
As Iâ€™m preparing to return from England after a lovely break and face a grueling (but necessary) pre season there is still uncertainty, and there are still nerves. But everything I do from now on wonâ€™t be for the first time; and that is a thought that I am finding increasingly comforting.
By Dan Lewis
Dan Lewis is currently an Espoir at French Top 14 club Oyonnax. He was fly half for the St Josephâ€™s College 1st XV during their triumph at the 2013 St Josephâ€™s Festival, playing for England U18 Clubs and Schools later in that 2013/14 season.