As excuses for putting off an interview go, “I’m out foraging for mushrooms” is a new one – but such is the reality of life in rural France for former England and Newcastle Falcons centre Jamie Noon.
“I managed to just about fill a crate of ceps and trompette de la mort in the end,” says the 34-year-old the following morning, planning how best to use his bountiful haul.
“You wouldn’t believe how seriously they take it. I was out walking the dog the other day and we stumbled upon a patch, totally by chance.
“I was mentioning it to a few of the locals in the village and they invited me to go out foraging with them.
“We drove for an hour in the car to find their mushroom patch, real cloak-and-dagger stuff.
“They guard the location of their spots like state secrets and at this time of year everybody is just so desperate to find the best place for ceps. It’s mad.”
That he has time for such fungal pursuit is due to the end of his playing career four months ago, having spent a decade at Newcastle Falcons and a further four seasons in central France with Brive. The two teams meet in the Correze Limousin region on Saturday night with Noon set to be among those in the Stade Amédée-Domenech – admitting to divided loyalties.
“It will be weird, really,” says the 38-times-capped centre, part of the England squad who reached the 2007 World Cup final and a two-time Cup winner in his days as a Falcon. “Brive, in many ways, are the Newcastle of France, and the parallels are bizarre when you start to look into it.
“They both play in black-and-white, they were both relegated last year after struggling for a few years near the bottom of their respective leagues, they were both promoted through the play-offs last season and now they have drawn each other in the Amlin Challenge Cup. They are virtually identical to one another.”
The clubs are no strangers, having been pooled together for four years in a row between 2005 and 2009.
The Falcons shade the eight contests by five wins to three, two of which came in France, but both seem similarly set on prioritising domestic survival over European honours this time round.
“Having just been promoted last season Brive are really putting all their eggs in the Top 14 basket, because staying in the French top flight is so financially important to them,” says Noon, their 20-20 draw at Calvisano last weekend illustrating his point.
“They haven’t even registered some of their best players for the Amlin Challenge Cup, which says a lot, but from a development point of view it is a useful competition for them to see what some of their younger lads can do. From what I can gather Newcastle will likely do the same, and it should be a decent contest.”
The highlight of Brive’s modern existence remains their 1997 Heineken Cup final victory against a Leicester team containing current Newcastle coaches Dean Richards and John Wells, the French side that day including present-day Brive coaches Philippe Carbonneau and Didier Casedei.
Giving the Falcons an idea of what to expect, Noon added: “Like a lot of French teams their style is mainly forward-oriented, and the emphasis on the scrum over here is huge.
“They love their driven line-outs, and will look to use both that and the scrum as a platform from which to attack through the backs.
“They are all about forward power and, despite not having a huge number of stars, they play with a real togetherness forged from last season’s second-division play-off win.
“They have won a handful of games in the Top 14 so far, beating Bordeaux, Bayonne and Perpignan and champions Castres, and they have a great draw at Grenoble despite playing an hour of the game with just 14 men.
“They really work hard for one another and there is a great bond between the players.”
Like Newcastle, relegated and then promoted within the space of a year, he adds: “It was a really difficult time for the club, going down like we did.
“We lost a lot of good players, the management had already changed during the relegation season and the whole thing was just in turmoil.
“It was tough for everyone to battle it out in Pro D2 [France’s second tier] but we had a good side.
“We started slowly, and there was a real worry we might be stuck in the division for a while if we couldn’t get up in the first season.
“Towards the end of the campaign we put a run together and the team we beat to seal promotion, Pau, were losing their third final .
“We became only the second team to bounce straight back, Albi being the other, and it was a great feeling to finish my career with.”
Hoping to show his face on Tyneside for the Falcons’ return date with Brive in the second week of the new year, Noon says: “It would be brilliant to go back to the Toon and get to the game.
“It was a great sadness for me I never got to play against the Falcons while at Brive, given how regularly we had drawn each other before I moved out here.
“I know from speaking to Jonny Wilkinson and Carl Hayman they found it strange coming back with Toulon to Kingston Park when they played against Newcastle, but doing it as a spectator would be the next-best thing.”