January 28, 2011 5:01 pm

Rugby flexes its muscles

Tom Palmer epitomises how the sport has reinvented itself, replacing amateurism with slick professionals

Having dealt with sportsmen from certain other sports that we won’t specify here, I can testify that rugby players are a pleasure. Tom Palmer arrives for the interview before the appointed time. He has no entourage. He wears the three lightning-bolts of his club, Stade Français, on his back in pink. He has a word in simple French with the staff of the Parisian sports canteen, and voilà, we have a quiet room. He squeezes his frame – 6ft 6in tall – into a chair. Then, peering almost vertically downwards, he looks me in the eye while he talks.

Tom Palmer

I have a theory that in every conversation or ­business meeting there is a subtext: if it came to a punch-up here, who would win? This afternoon, it would probably be Palmer. The 31-year-old England forward – about to contest the Six Nations and later this year, he hopes, the world cup – has barely an ounce of body fat in his 18 stone. This man is the ultimate product of professional rugby, his milieu these past 13 years. He has turned his body into a top-grade piece of equipment, has become a corporate expat, and is so dedicated to marketing rugby that he has twice posed naked for Stade Français’s calendar. Indeed, in Paris, Palmer has become part of rugby’s most successful (and most peculiar) marketing experiment. To understand how far rugby has moved on from the amateur era that ended only in 1995, meet Tom Palmer.

Handily for a professional rugby player today, Palmer was raised cosmopolitan. Born in England, he spent his youth in Kenya, Scotland and New Zealand. In fact, his favourite memory of the Six Nations is Scottish: “I was at the game in 1990 when Scotland beat England and won the Grand Slam, at Murrayfield. I would have been 11.”

Was he supporting Scotland? “I was, yeah,” he answers in his precise, earnest tones.

More

On this story

Simon Kuper

When did he stop supporting Scotland?

“When I started playing for England.”

As a teenager Palmer went to New Zealand on a school exchange and ended up playing for New Zealand Schoolboys. Back in Britain, he began ­reading physics at Leeds University. The coach of the Leeds Tykes professional club spotted the giant lock in his very first game for the university. Scotland spotted him too, and picked him for their under-19s and under-21s team, despite his English parents and birth. Soon, Palmer was contemplating an adult international career with Scotland. He made a professional choice.

“It was at the time that players who were playing international rugby had found out they weren’t eligible. David Hilton was a Bristolian prop who was playing for Scotland, and it was found out he had no real Scottish qualifications. I sat down with my coach at the time, Phil Davies, and he advised me I shouldn’t. England were much bigger, much better opportunities.”

Wasn’t it a bit confusing, pulling on the white jersey of the “Auld Enemy”?

“I’d got my head around it by then.”

However, after his debut in 2001 he wasn’t picked again until 2006. Then came years of being in and out of the side. “It has been frustrating,” he admits. Missing the world cup in 2007 was particularly galling. “I got to the last 36, and there were six guys who didn’t make the final 30-man squad, and I was one of those six.”

These were galling years for England, too. They won the world cup in 2003, but haven’t even won a Six Nations since, a spell of underperformance to match anything offered up by their richer, slimmer footballing counterparts. Nonetheless, notes Palmer, “the English [rugby] crowd have been a lot more supportive, less fickle than the football crowd, even though there’s been some bad results. There’s only once the home English crowd have booed the team and that was after we lost to Argentina at Twickenham [in 2006].”

Is the public kinder to rugby players because it doesn’t think they are overpaid and spoiled like footballers?

“Yeah. We’re well rewarded for what we do but it’s not in the same league as footballers. Also, people can see how tough the game is. That’s been a bit of frustration with football, the way people dive around. You know in a contact sport how much things hurt, and you think: what’s happened to them doesn’t justify the reaction.” In any case, he sniffs, he doesn’t watch much football.

But, he admits, there’s a flipside to the public’s patience with rugby players: it shows that they care less about rugby. “The amount of passion about football is a level above,” he says, and as if to emphasise his point, through the window of our backroom we can see young boys playing football. “Perhaps for some people, football is their life, their football team, their happiness. With rugby it’s not that ­passionate. Possibly in South Africa they get a bit like that. Actually, here in the south of France there are guys who’ve got sponsored vehicles with the club’s name on it, and if you’ve had a bad game, you might find that your car’s been scratched or the tyres let down. If you do well in these small towns in the south of France, you’re everyone’s hero, and the boulanger won’t charge you for your bread. But if you do badly, suddenly it’s different.”

In summer 2009 Palmer moved from the London club Wasps to a city with zero traditional passion for rugby: Paris. The French league, thanks largely to TV money, had grown into the world’s richest, and was sucking in the world’s best rugby players. Even England’s legend Jonny Wilkinson has ended up in the small southern port of Toulon.

 
Tom Palmer in his Wasps days

Tom Palmer charges through a tackle in his Wasps days

Palmer signed a juicy contract with Stade Français, the club run by the entrepreneur Max Guazzini, and admits: “Before Max took over the club they were playing in the park in front of a man and his dog.” This is pretty much literally true. When Guazzini had the mad idea of bringing rugby back to Paris, in 1992, Stade were in the third division. When they won promotion, both their supporters ran a lap of honour. By 1998 they were French champions. Today Paris must be the only capital city in continental Europe where football is not the most popular club game. It’s a case, Palmer marvels, of “manufacturing fans from nothing”.

Stade have created for themselves a brand without precedent in rugby. They play in pink. They have cheerleaders. At games I’ve been to, most of the crowd seem to be families with small kids on an afternoon out, or pretty young couples on dates. Palmer marvels: “To get 80,000 people for a match against Toulouse last weekend … To sell out the Stade de France for a club game. Because I wasn’t playing I saw all the entertainment beforehand, and the fireworks afterwards. It’s a fantastic show.”

But hardly any of the 80,000 are diehard rugby fans. Does that bother him? “No. Rugby is a professional business. It’s all about bums on seats in professional sport. I think a lot of the fans will only come to a few games a year, they don’t have the interest to come every Saturday, but I think they’ve got the formula right, and it’s being copied in England. Harlequins now play their London rivals over the Christmas period, they have a game at Twickenham. I think they have a similar thing with a bit of entertainment beforehand.”

Part of the Stade Français marketing drive is the club calendar, called “Gods of the Stadium”: 12 pictures of rugby players nude, bar the odd tactical figleaf. Palmer knows that the question is coming: “Yeah, I’ve done it twice now and it’s not the easiest experience, to go and be photographed naked with a lot of hangers-on there, photographers’ assistants and make-up people. I’m not sure if you’re allowed to say no, how that would go down, so I just said ‘I’ll do it’. I get paid for doing it so I’m not too bothered. I think being professional sportsmen you get used to being naked in front of other people, because it’s communal showers twice a day.”

It’s not the same as if bank chief executives were told to strip, I offer.

“Yeah.”

Has he had much teasing from unreconstructed English rugby people? “No. I think there’s some English guys who’ve done it before, and some English guys who’d like to do it.”

 
Tom Palmer and his current team Stade Français

Palmer’s current team Stade Français playing against Stade Toulousain, August 2010

Like many expats, Palmer has found adapting to work the easy bit. Even working in French has been fine. He still only speaks the language at the level of a “six- or eight-year-old,” but that’s enough for rugby, he says. “On the field, you don’t have to worry about tenses and grammar. You just need to know the key words: left and right, intérieur, extérieur, tackle, that sort of thing.” Palmer calls Stade’s lineouts in French. Apart from having to shake the hand of every single teammate first thing every morning, he hasn’t wrestled with French culture either. French rugby banter, he says, suspiciously resembles English. “A lot of rugby guys are pretty immature – infantile humour a lot of the time.”

Typically in expat couples, it’s the non-working spouse who struggles to adjust. While Palmer is at work reporting the quality of his sleep, training in sessions that are timed to the minute, or sitting in a chamber frozen to -110°C to ease his aches, his wife is alone in their quiet wealthy suburb near Versailles. “It’s been tough for her,” he says. “She hasn’t been able to work, doesn’t speak the language very well. She feels at the moment, it’s a little bit like she hasn’t got that much point. Every day she’s got a housewife’s job without kids.”

Could her situation one day prompt him to ­forsake Stade’s riches and return home? “Yeah definitely. If my wife were to say, ‘Look, I want to go back to England, I want to resume my career,’ then we’d have to talk about it. If that’s what she wanted, I’d go back to England. But at the moment she’s been very supportive of my career, realises that I can only do what I’m doing for probably four, five more years at the most and it’s a case of make hay while the sun shines.” There is another prompt that might eventually send him home: after this year’s world cup, the Rugby Football Union is threatening to stop picking players who play for foreign clubs.

Palmer’s contract with Stade expires next year. “I’m going to have to make a decision then, see how confident I’m feeling within the England team, see if the coaches think, ‘You know what, we don’t think you’ll be around for the next world cup, we’re going to phase you out and bring in some younger players.’” On the other hand, he suggests, perhaps the RFU is bluffing.

That’s for later. Now he’s an England regular at last, about to play the Six Nations and then the world cup in New Zealand. “It’s got the potential to be the biggest year of my career so far,” says Palmer. England, he thinks, are trying to play “flair” rugby with a happy squad that has the right mix of ages. He has recently been calling England’s lineouts, and against Australia last year played what was widely considered his best international. Ideally, his career will climax on October 23 with a world cup final in Auckland. Will going to New Zealand be a homecoming of sorts?

“No, not a homecoming at all. It’s actually a ­difficult place to go to, New Zealand, because ­everyone’s fanatical about rugby there. You are recognised, they can be quite hostile, they don’t like the English very much. I’d like to go back there on a holiday. For the world cup, I think it’ll be very intense, it’ll be rugby rugby rugby. It’ll be hard to switch off during downtime, because rugby will be the big story. It’s quite a small place, so it’s got the potential to be a bit of a goldfish bowl.”

Better, surely, to be in Paris, naked or clad in pink, doing your work in front of 80,000 people who don’t care very much.

Simon Kuper is an FT writer and columnist. Additional research by Dominic O’Shea. To comment on this article,e -mail magazineletters@ft.com

Copyright The Financial Times Limited 2014. You may share using our article tools.
Please don't cut articles from FT.com and redistribute by email or post to the web.

LIFE AND ARTS ON TWITTER

More FT Twitter accounts