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'I think I'm the only Ireland international ever to play for Toulon'

Rob Henderson tells The42 about his memorable season with the European giants.

ROB HENDERSON WAS there at the very beginning of Mourad Boudjellal’s Toulon odyssey.

The pair might seem an unlikely combination now, but the 32-times capped Ireland centre signed for the French outfit in 2006 soon after Boudjellal had been elected president of the club.

Rob Henderson Henderson was superb on the 2001 Lions tour. Source: Billy Stickland/INPHO

Henderson was one of the first international imports in a line that is apparently unending. At the age of 33 and coming towards the conclusion of his final season with Munster, the powerful midfielder had been in line to join Garryowen as director of rugby.

A phone call out of the blue changed everything, however, and led to Henderson having one of the most enjoyable seasons of his entire career. From five head coaches to U2 anthems and Tana Umaga, it was a rollicking French adventure.

“I’d actually agreed to join Garryowen,” says Henderson. “I was supposed to be starting there after my final season at Munster, but I got a phone call from an agent saying ‘will you come down and play for Toulon?’

Initially I thought it was someone taking the mick, then he rang back and I said to the wife, ‘what do you think?’ We thought ‘why not?’ The body was in good enough shape.”

Henderson – who now runs Rob Henderson Consulting – admits he wouldn’t have been able to pinpoint Toulon on a map before that call, but he flew out to meet Boudjellal and was immediately impressed by the comic book magnate’s vision for the club.

Toulon had just been relegated from the Top 14 and hadn’t won a title since 1992, but Boudjellal told Henderson he wanted to build a formidable team and intended to bring RCT to the very peak of European rugby.

The sunshine and seaside in the south of France helped to sweeten the deal and Henderson and his wife Angela “decided to take the plunge.”

Rob Henderson shows off the Heineken Cup Henderson shows off the 2006 Heineken Cup at Thomond Park in his final season as a Munster player. Source: Billy Stickland/INPHO

Boudjellal can come across as a brash, larger-than-life character in his dealings with the media and Henderson admits the president was “absolutely the same” in private. That didn’t stop the centre from respecting Boudjellal’s motivation for making RCT great.

“He’s obviously got a passion not just for the rugby club but also the village of Toulon itself,” explains Henderson.

“Having been afforded the opportunity to make his fortune in Toulon, he wanted to put the money back into the club and the surrounding area and populace, something for the people to believe in. That’s his raison d’être, so all credit to him for that.”

The image of Boudjellal has been coloured by his outspoken nature and incessant pursuit of glory, but Henderson’s dealings with the millionaire allowed him to appreciate Boudjellal’s dedication and commitment.

“He’d be in the changing room with you, walking out to training and then he’d be on the field with you. I think it has taken an amount of time, but he realised that he can relax the reins while still being visible and audible.”

Henderson was part of the first big wave of Boudjellal recruitment as Gonzalo Quesada, Dan Luger, Fijian giant Isoa Domolailai, France internationals Jean-Jacques Crenca and Yann Delaigue, Tongan Siaki Tukino and South African prop Daniel Muller all signed up.

“We were the guinea pigs, I suppose, that went down initially,” says Henderson, “They needed to bring in a few guys to kickstart it and if you look at the roll of honour that they’ve brought in since it’s incredible.”

FRANCE UMAGA Umaga arrived in Toulon to much fanfare. Boudjellal [right] was evidently thrilled. Source: AP/Press Association Images

Most high-profile of all was the addition of New Zealand legend Tana Umaga, who arrived in October of that 2006/07 season on a big-money contract, eventually going on to coach the team.

Henderson found the All Black “a humble fella and a dedicated professional sportsman,” and points out that Umaga put Toulon on the map for other superstars like Victor Matfield, Andrew Mehrtens and George Gregan to follow in 2007/08.

The lone Irishman played an integral part in Toulon’s drive for immediate promotion from the Pro D2 in ’06/07, playing 24 times and scoring six tries in a hugely effective season on the pitch.

However, the collective performances were inconsistent and though Toulon reached the promotion play-offs, a semi-final defeat to La Rochelle ended their hopes of jumping straight back into the Top 14.

Those stuttering patches of form, including 11 regular-season losses, allowed Henderson to get a glimpse of Boudjellal’s ruthless side as Toulon went through five head coaches over the course of 2006 and 2007.

“There difficulties with language barriers, with performances on the pitch,” says the former Munster centre. “As much as the players were under scrutiny, if we ever lost a game the coaches were under serious pressure.

“We’d lose a couple of games and the coaches were sacked. It was honestly ruthless. It was basically ‘if it doesn’t work, we’ll get rid of the coach. If the players aren’t performing, we’ll bring in new players!’”

Rob Henderson runs in DIGITAL Henderson on the rampage for Ireland. Source: Patrick Bolger/INPHO

Henderson, though, proved to be hugely popular and more than rewarded Boudjellal’s decision to bring him to France. He feels his ability to deliver on the pitch was in part down to his thirst to integrate into life in his new hometown.

“I went native like Kevin Costner in ‘Dances with Wolves’, I submerged myself in the French culture and tried to learn the language and become a part of it that way,” says Henderson. “Some of the guys from the Southern Hemisphere were more than happy not to learn French, to stay in their own little clique, but I think they’ve fully addressed that.

I think everyone there now understands that they’re playing for a French club, so you’ve got to learn the language.”

Anyone who has experienced game day at Stade Mayol can attest to the quality of the fervent local support, and Henderson was fully embraced by the rouges et noirs faithful during his season with the club.

The feeling of warmth was mutual.

“The fact that we used to run out to ‘City of Blinding Lights’ by U2 was quite cool,” says Henderson. “I think they did that for me, I think I’m the only Ireland international to play down there and that was a little doff of the cap for me.

“I thought that was brilliant, so that’s been on the playlist from then on in! The support down there was quite incredible.

“I was lucky all down through my career with the support in London Irish, Wasps, Munster and Toulon, all incredible supporters who pack out the stadium for every home match and travel too.”

Rob Henderson 16/4/2005 Henderson is fondly remember at Munster. Source: INPHO

Henderson initially signed a two-year contract with Toulon, one which would have seen him play into the club’s 2007/08 promotion-winning campaign alongside the likes of Gregan, Matfield, Mehrtens and Anton Oliver.

However, other priorities were pressing and Henderson made one of the few decisions of his career that he regrets.

“I signed a two-year deal, but we had one child when we went down there and my wife was pregnant with our second. It was just too difficult staying down there in a different country with no real support network, so we cut the contract and came back.

“With hindsight, it’s tough with two little children whatever country you’re in, and we both wish we had stayed down there for the second season.”

The ties haven’t been totally severed though, and Henderson was back in Stade Mayol two weekends ago to watch his former club beat Wasps in the Champions Cup quarter-finals. He bumped into several old faces and enjoyed trying to recall his French.

That victory means Toulon face Leinster tomorrow, and Henderson admits that if Munster were involved in Marseille, he’d be “down there in a red jersey with a stag on it.”

His support will go the way of Leinster in this semi-final though and he says there is no reason Matt O’Connor’s men can’t beat Toulon.

Rob Henderson breaks through 19/3/2000 Henderson powers past the French defence in 2000, with Simon Easterby close behind. Source: Billy Stickland/INPHO

“I think if you look at the second half of Toulon’s game against Wasps, Wasps got back into it by playing attacking rugby,” says Henderson. “Even a blind man on a galloping horse can see that Leinster have been one of the best exponents of that brand of rugby in recent years.

As long as they don’t get embroiled in a forward battle, because Toulon are very strong. If Leinster can play with a bit of flair, they can comfortably go down there and get a result.”

If not, Boudjellal’s stars will march on into the final looking for their third consecutive European title. Matt Giteau, Steffon Armitage and Mathieu Bastaread might be the stars now, but Hendo was there when the journey started. 

‘Leinster preparing for as big a battle as we’ve ever had’

One ex-player thinks Leinster can exploit Toulon’s weaknesses on Sunday

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Murray Kinsella

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