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Lock of ages? French turn back clock for Brits

Simon Shaw in action for ToulonThe burgeoning British colony in France hurls itself into Top 14 action next weekend, an assault force headed by surely the oldest pair of locks in the game.

For Scott Murray, the new season brings another new club and the extension of a long-playing record.

The 87-Test Scottish Lion whose senior debut as a teenaged second row coincided with the dawn of professionalism is still in demand at 36 having signed up to Mont-de-Marsan’s fight for

survival.

Murray has been around for so long that when he first appeared in the old English Second Division for Bedford his team-mates included Martin Offiah, the unforgettable bear of a Canadian second row, Norm Hadley, World Cup-winning Springbok Rudi Straeuli and our very own Jeff Probyn, venerable even back then.

None the worse for a losing baptism, against Richmond at Goldington Road on September 21, 1996, Murray stayed at Bedford for two more seasons, then made the first of his moves, to Saracens in the days before Francois Pienaar had got round to hanging up his boots.

After six years in England, Murray headed home to Edinburgh where he spent six seasons before crossing the Channel into the green fields of France. Anyone viewing his departure in 2007 as a short sail into the sunset has long since had to revise his, or her, opinion.

Far from fading away, Murray is still standing the test of time. He did three seasons at Montauban and once they had disappeared from the Top 14, he was still considered good enough for the over-achieving Castres to consider him worth a two-year contract. And now he’s got at least one more season.

Murray is a veritable spring chicken when it comes to comparison with the oldest of British locks, in France or anywhere else. Simon Shaw’s first-class career is longer than anyone else’s, stretching over almost 20 years for club, country and the Lions.

Shaw began so long ago that the game was still amateur, or supposed to be, Jack Rowell’s Bath were still lording it over the rest and Will Carling was halfway through his reign as England captain. Bristol’s home Courage League derby against Gloucester in April 1993 marked Shaw’s introduction as a 19-year-old lock with a big future.

Nobody then could have imagined that he would still be going strong virtually two decades later. Shaw will be 39 next month and Toulon are very happy to have him on board for a second season in the hope that by the end of it they will go one step further than last June when they lost the championship decider to Toulouse.

Toulon have invested more heavily in English players than any other French club, a policy initiated before Philippe Saint-Andre took charge and continued now under the supervision of former national coach, Bernard Laporte. Marginally less than one-third of the 26 Brits plying their trade in the Top 14 are to be found down on the Cote d’Azure among last season’s beaten finalists. They have spent big on some big imports, none more so than a pair of cross-channel looseheads – Andrew Sheridan from Sale, Geth Jenkins from Cardiff Blues.

Seven British involved in France last season are no longer to be found in the Top 14 cast. While Perry Freshwater called it a day before turning 39 last month, the rest have all changed clubs  Jason White (Clermont to Glasgow) Eifion Lewis-Roberts (Toulon to Sale) Dean Schofield (Toulon to Worcester)

Tom Palmer (Stade Francais to Wasps) Joe El Abd and Kris Chesney (both from Toulon to Pro 2 club Oyonnax)

The Brits in the Top 14 this season:

English: Iain Balshaw (Biarritz Olympique), Magnus Lund (Biarritz Olympique), Marcel Garvey (Castres Olympique), Shontayne Hape (Montpellier), Luke Narraway (Perpignan), Paul Sackey (Stade Francais), Delon Armitage (Toulon), Guy Armitage (Toulon), Steffon Armitage (Toulon), Nick Kennedy (Toulon), Simon Shaw (Toulon), Andrew Sheridan (Toulon), Jonny Wilkinson (Toulon)

Scottish: Nathan Hines (ASM Clermont), Max Evans (Castres Olympique), Scott Murray (Mont-de-Marsan), Johnny Beattie (Montpellier), Alasdair Strokosch (Perpignan)

Welsh: Jamie Robinson (Agen), Lee Byrne (ASM Clermont), Mike Phillips (Bayonne), Ben Broster (Biarritz Olympique), Aled Brew (Biarritz Olympique), James Hook (Perpignan), Luke Charteris (Perpignan), Geth Jenkins (Toulon)

Brits in ProD2 include a Welshman, Huw Bennett (Lyon), Englishman Jamie Noon (Brive) and Scot Mike Blair (Brive).

Toulon are the only Top 14 club where French players are in a minority.   Their 35-man squad as displayed on the club website contains 18 imports – eight British, two Georgians, two South Africans, two New Zealanders, one Welsh, one Australian, one Samoan and one Argentinian.

Stade Francais are up there with them. Their squad of 44 contains 21 non-French, the highest number in the Top 14. Agen have 19 out of 46, newly-promoted Grenoble 18 out of 43.

The number of imported props continues to escalate, to a level which threatens to prove injurious to the health of the France national team. With a trio of British props (Jenkins, Sheridan, Broster) signing up, the total of ‘foreign’ props in the Top 14 is now up to 43 – an average of three per club.

Almost half of them come from three countries – South Africa, New Zealand and Georgia, whose influence on the French game, particularly at tighthead, will grow with their latest export – Zurab Zhvania to Stade Francais.

Non-French props:

5 – Castres Olympique: Michael Coetzee (SA), Anton Peikrishvili (Georgia), Karena Wihongi (NZ), Mihaita Lazar (Romania), Saimone Taumoepau (Tonga)

5 – Toulon: Levan Chilichva (Georgia), Carl Hayman (NZ), Gethin Jenkins (Wales), Davit Kubriashvili (Georgia), Andrew Sheridan (England)

4 – Agen: Viliamuv Afiatia (Samoa), Johnston Falefa (Samoa), Gert Muller (SA), John Schwalger (NZ)

4 – Biarritz Olympique: Fransisco Gomez Kodela (Argentina), Eugene van Staden (SA), Ben Broster (Wales), Johannes Blaauw (SA)

3 – Begles Bordeaux: Patrick Toetu (NZ), Sylvin Florea (Romania), Hikairo Forbes (NZ)

3 – Stade Francais: Zurab Zhvania (Georgia), Stan Wright (Cook Islands), Francisco Nahuel Tetaz (Argentina)

3 – Toulouse: Census Johnston (Samoa), Gurthro Steenkamp (SA), Vasil Kakovin (Georgia)

3 – Grenoble: Ruaan du Preez (SA), Albertus Buckle (SA), Dayna Edwards (NZ)

3 – Mont-de-Marsan:Tevita Mailau (Tonga), Ephraim Taukafa (Tonga), Pieter Grobler (SA)

3 – Montpellier: Jgenti Giorgi (Georgia), Na’ana Leleimalefaga (Samoa), Mikhail Nariashvili (Georgia)

2 – ASM Clermont: David Zirakashvili (Georgia), Daniel Kotze (SA)

2 – Racing Metro: Andrea Lo Cicero (Italy), Juan-Pablo Orlandi (Argentina)

2 – Perpignan: Kisi Pulu (Tonga), Alisona Taumalolo (Tonga)

1 – Bayonne: Neemia Tialata (NZ)

PETER JACKSON

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