IT takes a certain type of person to leave the North East and make it big in France.
Former Newcastle United and England footballer Chris Waddle did it, playing over a century of games for Marseille where he is still revered as a folk hero, and Lyon’s Christian Short is making a fair old fist of his Gallic stint after crossing the channel four seasons ago. The experience certainly appears to be leaving its mark on him.
“Oui, bonjour,” is how he answers his telephone, explaining that he is in the middle of his lunch and will have time to chat afterwards.
Lunch is big in France and, so it would seem, is Short. Six foot and seven inches to be exact, with the flame-haired line-out target winding his way to the country’s second city after two seasons at Top 14 rivals Brive.
It is all a long way from Newlands Preparatory School in Gosforth, where the lock-forward spent his early years before moving on to Hexham’s Queen Elizabeth High School. Four of his five sisters remain in the region, while dad John – the Gosforth RFC past president – is now back in his Slaley home after a trip to see his offspring earlier this week.
“Hopefully I will have a bit of a support crew at Kingston Park on Saturday,” jokes Christian ahead of the opening match of the Amlin Challenge Cup – European rugby’s second-tier event behind the Heineken Cup.
The fact that the game is even taking place is something of a revelation given the turmoil at Lyon. So deep is Short’s assimilation that he says the word in French before having to search for the English equivalent.
Finally settling on “nightmare”, he goes on to explain how deeply the outbreak of mumps at the club has affected their programme.
Following their 15-all draw at Biarritz three weeks ago, their subsequent matches against Montpellier and Begles-Bordeaux were both postponed.
“As a result of us having played Biarritz they also called off last weekend’s match between Biarritz and Bayonne, which was the 100th anniversary of what is a massive derby game in the Basque region. As you can imagine, we were not exactly flavour of the month down there, but it was a decision taken by the league.
“There were something like 12 of our guys who were deemed to be at risk, and the ones who had not been vaccinated against mumps or had not had the virus previously were put into quarantine and kept away from the rest of us.
“They trained in pairs from 8am until 6pm, but I had mumps when I was little so I was able to train with the group of 30 who were not said to be at risk. In the end, seven of the 12 went down with it, and two of those were very sick indeed.
“It went down into their testicles and there was a lot of worry over their fertility, but the incubation period has ended now and thankfully the crisis is over.”
The end of the medical drama offers up a return to rugby and, for Short, the chance to make a brief home-coming. Despite French teams travelling about as well as a car with no engine in the Amlin Challenge Cup, the second-row is more than qualified to talk on the subject as part of the Brive team who became the first to cross the Channel and leave Kingston Park with victory two years ago.
He says: “Normally French sides do not travel well in Europe, but the mentality at Lyon seems to be a little bit different.
“We really go for the away games as well – we play for each other and we are coming over to Newcastle determined to win.”
A glance at the French league table brackets them alongside the Falcons in the ‘strugglers’ category.
Just two wins from their 10 games leaves them second-bottom of the pile ahead of only Biarritz, but look a bit closer and the picture starts to change for a side just promoted as champions of France’s second tier.
“Our worst defeat was by 13 points against Racing Metro, and all of the others have been closer,” says Short. “Against Racing we conceded 15 points in the first five minutes when we just didn’t get off the train, at Clermont we lost a bonus point with the last kick, against Toulouse there was a huge fight and we naively stopped playing afterwards then away to Agen we scored two tries and they kicked eight penalties to beat us.
“We have beaten my old club Brive away from home, drawn with Biarritz when we had a kick to win it, beaten Stade Francais and lost to a late kick against Castres.
“Our form is not fully reflected in our league position, but we have not been far away when you think we are a team which has just been promoted.”
With their squad boasting names like South African international scrum-half Ricky Januarie, Fiji No 8 Sisa Koyamaibole and Welsh centre Lee Thomas, Short says: “We had the biggest budget in ProD2, but it is hard to attract players to the club until your promotion is finalised so this season is really just about survival for us. In terms of the current team, we are very close together after winning ProD2 last season, and while we have made a number of signings in the summer there is still a great spirit.”
He adds: “I don’t see why we cannot come over to Newcastle and get a win.
“We have got some big old boys in the pack, and the set-piece over here is absolutely fundamental.
“If you are not a good scrummager in France then you don’t get to play much, and we also have a defence who work very hard for each other.
“We play a nice brand of rugby with some talented backs, and there is a bit of French flair in there.
“We can grind it out or play with tempo when we want to, but a wet, windy day at Newcastle might have to mean sticking it up the jumper to get a result.”