Has Canada Lost Cudmore for Good as Oyonnax Beckons?

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Jamie Cudmore in Clermont colours

Jamie Cudmore

CASTRES, FRANCE – Jamie Cudmore has left the door ajar for a future approach from Canada, despite turning his back on a coaching role with the Canucks to sign a four-year playing-and-coaching deal with French outfit Oyonnax.

Cudmore said: “It’s been a few months of to-and-fro but we’ve finally got ink on paper.

Oyonnax have a hugely professional set-up. They’re opening a new training centre in May. They’ve got a quality stadium and great support behind them.”

The next few years promise to be busy for the 37-year-old, who has finally set a deadline on his playing career. As well as playing and coaching at Oyonnax, he is setting up a foundation to raise awareness of the dangers of concussion and is about to add to his Sin Bin Wines stable.

But rugby matters remain uppermost in Cudmore’s mind. As well as Canada, the lock turned down interest from other clubs – notably Aviva Premiership side Gloucester – to sign for the Top 14 strugglers, who are almost certain to be relegated to the ProD2.

He said: “I talked to David Humphreys at Gloucester on numerous occasions, and it was really interesting for us, to get into the Premiership and have a new challenge – but the project that Oyonnax have put together was what made us choose to go there.

He dismissed media reports in Canada that he is already being lined-up for the head coach’s hot-seat at the Ain club. “I won’t be head coach right off the bat – but that may interest me in future. I’m basically starting a new job. You’ve got to start at the bottom.

Tough decision

The news that Cudmore is heading towards the Alps rather than the Rockies will be a blow to the Canucks, who this week unveiled former Ulster boss Mark Anscombe as permanent head coach, replacing fellow Kiwi Kieran Crowley who resigned in January to take the reins at Pro 12 side Benetton Treviso.

Jamie Cudmore: Image - Warwick Gastinger

Cudmore looks to the referee as he leads Canada’s pack in a maul during the 2015 Rugby World Cup

As he recovered from a neck injury, Cudmore was brought in to coach the forwards during this year’s Americas Rugby Championship alongside interim head coach Francois Ratier. But his desire to carry on playing was a deciding factor for the 6ft 5in giant.

He said: “It was a tough decision because I had a great opportunity with Canada – and I’ve always wanted to give back to Canadian rugby. But I still have a lot to give on the field and I still enjoy my rugby. I still want to play.”

And there’s hope if Anscombe should come knocking. “It’s not a permanent ‘no’. Definitely not. It’s just that now’s not the time (to move into a permanent coaching role). But I would study any offer from Canada with a great amount of thought.”

Coaching his country may be temporarily off the table and his Clermont career may be almost over despite his long-awaited return to the training ground recently, but the hulking Cudmore will terrorise opposing players for two more years at his new home at Stade Charles-Mathon, before giving up the changing room for the back room.

Cudmore’s Alpine challenge

Oyonnax’s likely relegation from the Top 14 was no obstacle. Cudmore said: “It’s a project that interests me. It’s about creating a good group of players together to add to the existing core group that that they already have.

Stade Charles-Mathon

Oyonnax’s Stade Charles-Mathon

“The mentality there is something that I really admire. It’s a small town of hard-working people who do the best they can and punch above their weight.”

It has been a tale of two seasons for Cudmore’s new club. Last term, they finished sixth to qualify for the European Champions Cup. After 19 matches of the current campaign, they were 13 points from safety in one of the two relegation places.

They have struggled this year after losing (director of rugby) Christophe Urios to Castres,Cudmore admitted. “He took some great players with him, so we’ve got to rebuild that team environment and that work ethic, create a new winning culture, a bit of pride in the jersey and get Oyonnax back into the Top 14.”

Cudmore is realistic about Oyonnax’s chances of an immediate return to the top flight, as Lyon have done this season. “That’s a hard thing to do, to go down and come straight back. The ProD2 is getting stronger every year. It’s a big task but I hope we have the group to do it.”

No PRO rugby ‘gamble’

Despite a number of players from Canada and Europe heading to America’s new PRO rugby league, Cudmore said the lure of the US was never a serious option for him.

He said: “I thought about it and I talked to a lot of people about it, but to me it doesn’t seem serious enough yet.

I hope it works. I hope it blows up. I hope it does the same thing that MLS did 15 to 20 years ago, but to me it seems there’s no business plan behind it; there’s no insurance. There’s a lot of what-ifs and a lot of things up in the air with the PRO league, so for me it’s a huge gamble that I was not prepared to take.

“It’s kind of been thrown together. It’s pretty light in terms of a business plan, back-up stuff, because they’re trying to throw it together as fast as they can to see if it works.

“It’s going to be a tough haul, not only to get the public behind it and help them understand the game, but also to make it viable.”

“I have a lot of friends going over to play in it, especially from Canada, but – for me – it’s just wasn’t secure enough.”

Concussion concern

The question of player welfare, on and off the pitch, is high on Cudmore’s agenda. He nearly called time on his playing career shortly before the 2015 World Cup, after picking up a concussion while playing for Clermont in the European Champions Cup semi final.

Now, he is launching a foundation – Rugby Safety Network – to raise awareness of concussion and improve treatment, both immediately after any head injury and in the days, weeks and months that follow.

He said: “There is progress in the awareness and treatment of concussion, but – in France at least – we’re light years behind.

“I still see guys who are getting concussions in games and coming back to play in the same game because, one, there’s pressure for these guys to keep playing and, two, I don’t think the doctors fully understand the risks they’re taking with players.

“In England, they’re starting to really come around. In North America no risks are taken. When I was coaching with Canada during the ‘6 Nations’, our players were out straightaway for three weeks if there was any inkling of a head knock at all.

“There’s still a lot of work to be done. Here in France, it’s still pretty dicey.

Antoine Burban was knocked out during a match recently and came back at the end of the same game – for me, that’s not safe. When a guy gets knocked out like that and is lying on the ground like a dead bug and is back on the field 20 minutes later, questions need to be raised.”

The foundation, which is based in Geneva – an hour or so over the Swiss border from Cudmore’s new club – involves players and ex-coaches throughout France going to clubs of all levels and educating everyone involved in rugby in the dangers.

Cudmore said: “At the highest level, we understand the dangers – whether the guidelines are followed is up for debate.

I think the most important thing is that the weekend warriors or the kids who play in age-grade rugby are protected. It’s got to start young. If youngsters are protected, as they get older it will become second nature. It’s like if you twist your knee. You don’t play with a twisted knee – it should be the same with a head knock.”

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James Harrington... Before injury brought his rugby career to a timely end, journalist James was equally useless whether he packed down in the second row or at number 8, positions in which he represented his school and university with indistinction. The prolific one now lives in France with his journalist wife and three children and watches as much Top 14, European and international action he thinks he can get away with; justifying his obsession by claiming: "But it's all work, Honey!"

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