Former Sharks scrumhalf Charl McLeod has settled in quickly at Grenoble, writes GAVIN MORTIMER.
Charl McLeod likens Grenoble to Paarl. It has the same stunning scenery, the same agreeable climate and the same passion for gastronomy. There is, however, one important difference. They speak French in Grenoble. But then, so does McLeod.
‘Before I came here I took French lessons for about two months,’ explains the 31-year-old. ‘I’m one of those No 9s who likes to talk a lot and it would have been frustrating if I couldn’t communicate.’
He can communicate all right, as any number of French referees can testify. Watch any Grenoble game this season and there’s McLeod making his thoughts known to the officials. He’s even already mastered the art of the Gallic arm gestures. ‘Throwing my arms in the air is the best way to communicate!’ says McLeod, laughing.
His diligence has already paid dividends, with his halfback partner, flyhalf Jonathan Wisniewski, brimming with praise for him.
‘Charl has made a huge effort to integrate into the squad since arriving,’ he says. ‘Learning some French before he left South Africa really impressed me and he’s adapted well to the Top 14. It’s a pleasure to play with him.’
Wisniewski has good cause to acclaim McLeod. The former Racing Métro player is in the form of his life and in contention for a recall to the France squad for the first time in four years. Much of his newfound confidence can be attributed to McLeod’s slick service, his vision and his irrepressible character.
For McLeod isn’t a man to dwell on the negatives. Effervescence courses through his veins, a characteristic not always present in French players. Perhaps that was another reason Grenoble were so eager to sign him from the Sharks. The move came about when veteran loose forward Shaun Sowerby, who finished his career with Grenoble last season, contacted John Smit earlier in the year.
‘I’d told Smitty I wanted to go overseas and he put me in touch with Shaun,’ says McLeod. ‘Smitty was supportive throughout. Having gone through the same process, he understood my reasons.’
And the reasons for his move were unambiguous. No longer in his prime, McLeod wanted to finish his career in Europe by experiencing something new and exciting.
‘Once you hit 30, you’re regarded as old in South Africa,’ he says without any resentment. ‘I was offered a two-year contract and my wife and I decided to take the opportunity.’
McLeod prepped up before leaving South Africa. Not just the French lessons but also a long discussion with Bernard Jackman, the former Leinster and Ireland hooker who is in his first season as head coach. He is a forthright character who has a clear vision of how he wants his side to play. A simplistic way of describing it is a marriage of French flair and home nations structure.
‘Once you hit 30, you’re regarded as old in South Africa. I was offered a two-year contract and my wife and I decided to take the opportunity’
‘I’ve really enjoyed the rugby,’ says McLeod. ‘We’re playing fast, spreading the ball wide, and it’s how I like it. It’s not always like this in France. There’s a lot of forward bashing but we’ve scored 15 tries in our first five games and I think that’s all because of what Bernard brings to the party.’
Of course, McLeod was talking to SA Rugby magazine in mid-September when the sun was warm, the sky blue and the birds singing. The European winter awaits and he is bracing himself for an arctic blast.
‘I’ve been warned about the winter!’ he exclaims. His first experience of how nose-numbingly cold it can get in this part of the world came in November 2010 when he was called up by South Africa during their tour of the British Isles.
‘I joined the squad in November and played against the Barbarians at Twickenham. It was cold.’
But the winter is still several weeks away, and anyway, if Grenoble continue their early-season form, the plunging thermometer won’t seem so spiteful. Despite losing their first two matches – away games at Clermont and Montpellier – Grenoble picked up a defensive point in each, no mean feat against two of the most dominant home sides in the Top 14.
‘Making my French debut in Clermont was a special moment,’ says McLeod, of a match Grenoble lost 30-26. ‘It’s a great stadium and an amazing atmosphere with all the singing. The only thing I found odd was that we had the ball when the hooter went but kicked it out. I couldn’t understand it but I was told to be happy with a losing bonus point.’
McLeod comes across as a contented man. He lives in a beautiful region of France, plays for a club on the up and can look back on a career without cause for complaint. He’s even got a Springbok Test cap to treasure, earned as a replacement against the All Blacks in 2011.
‘When I left South Africa, I’d achieved everything I had hoped for. Ten years ago I went to Stellenbosch to study and I ended up playing rugby. What a dream! I also won a Test cap for my country. Of course, I would have loved to win more but to represent South Africa just once is awesome.’
See what I mean about the positive energy. This is definitely one McLeod who always has a silver lining.
– This article first appeared in the November 2014 issue of SA Rugby magazine