Former SA U21 fullback Scott Spedding has been warmly embraced by his adopted nation, writes GAVIN MORTIMER.
In Europe, it’s the season of sniffles and sneezes, but Scott Spedding went viral in an altogether different manner in November. Bayonne’s fullback found himself an overnight internet sensation having merely popped out for a pee. He explains.
‘We’d just finished the Clermont game and were enjoying a good win, when I left the change room to go to the loo. As soon as I opened the door I saw a few of the Bayonne directors and Patrice Lagisquet, the France backs coach. He said he had something for me and produced a plane ticket for Paris. Then he told me: “Be at the airport tomorrow at 9. You’re coming with us.”’
Shocked. Stunned. Speechless. Spedding was all that and more.
‘I didn’t know a camera was there,’ he says, laughing. ‘I’d only stepped out to go to the loo!’
It was his emotional reaction to Lagisquet’s news, captured on camera, that went viral. The tears that flowed were so spontaneous, so sincere, they struck a chord with fans – and not just French ones – sick of the cynicism that characterises so much of modern sport.
When Spedding wept with joy, it was as if he was weeping for all of us, or at least those among us who have dreamed of representing our country.
‘Ah!’ the cynics among you might cry (and shame on you!), but Spedding is South African, not French. Not any more. The Krugersdorp native became a French citizen in September, six years after arriving from South Africa and a spell with the Sharks.
‘This country has given me a lot,’ he explains. ‘I arrived here as a youngster with a rucksack and not much else. Coming to France has given me priceless opportunities and experiences. To play for the team means everything to me.’
Spedding was braced for a mixed reaction to his unexpected call-up into the French squad. Brice Dulin and Maxime Médard were above the 28-year-old in the pecking order, but when they succumbed to injuries in October, France coach Philippe Saint-André showed admirable resolve in drafting in Spedding.
With Rory Kockott and Bernard le Roux already in the 30-man squad – not to mention Kiwi-born prop Uini Atonio – the inclusion of a fourth ‘foreigner’ would surely only further antagonise those French fans opposed to the residency rule. But if there was any carping, none of it came to Spedding’s attention.
‘I’ve really been amazed at the reaction,’ he says. ‘I’ve had messages of support from all over the country; not just Bayonne, but from the Clermont and Toulon fans too. The whole country has got behind me. When I was selected I was ready for criticism because of the politics involved in French rugby but the support has been incredible.’
'Coming to France has given me priceless opportunities and experiences. To play for the team means everything to me.’
If there had been any lingering resentment at Spedding’s selection, he silenced the doubters with his debut performance against Fiji. Teddy Thomas may have won the Man of the Match award for his hat-trick of tries but Spedding created two of the young wing’s scores.
The timing of his passes was as sumptuous as the angles of his running, all packaged together with composure rarely seen on a Test debut. Pretty impressive, particularly given that Spedding knocked on two balls in the first six minutes.
‘I started a little shakily!’ he admits. ‘I was pumped up. I’d waited a long time for that moment so I knew I was going to come back from those mistakes.’
A week after helping France beat Fiji 40-15, Spedding was part of an unchanged side that defeated Australia 29-26 and he made his third start when France finished off their trio of November Tests with an 18-13 defeat to Argentina. He notched his first points in Test rugby, landing a penalty, but the defeat hurt. ‘One step forward, two steps back,’ is how he sums up France’s three matches.
Looking on proudly from the stands in all three Tests was Spedding’s family.
‘When I was told I was in the squad, the first person I called was my dad,’ he says. ‘We spoke for about 10 minutes, though not much was actually said. It was pretty emotional. My parents and my brother flew out for the Fiji game and stayed for another three weeks, while my two sisters, a nephew and a brother-in-law arrived for the Australia Test.
‘It’s been wonderful to be able to share everything with my family. They’ve supported me from day one and sacrificed a great deal, firstly in enabling me to go to St John’s College and then to travel to France. It feels really good to give something back.’
Spedding has also received a lot of goodwill from South Africa. If not much from the Sharks, then many individual messages of support from his former SA Academy and SA U21 teammates. He also got a message from the headmaster of St John’s in Johannesburg, a school that must be feeling pretty proud right now, what with Spedding and Chris Froome among its old boys.
Spedding caught up with his old schoolmate during the 2013 Tour de France, a race Froome went on to win. There’ll never be a yellow jersey for Spedding but given how he’s started his France career, he could make the blue jersey all his own in the seasons to come.
– This article first appeared in the January-February issue of SA Rugby magazine