THEY’RE the odd bunch. The misfits. And in some instances, the rejects.
However, French Federation of Rugby League Elite One newcomers Albi Tigers have banded together and are eyeing their own slice of silverware as the 2015–16 season enters its second phase.
Tigers prop Brenton Horwood, one of four Australians playing at the club in 2015–16, has noticed a drastic change as the season has worn on.
The club secured its berth in the Lord Derby Cup semi-finals with a convincing 56–10 win over third tier team U.S Ferrals XIII on February 21.
Albi is currently sitting in 6th place and over the next six rounds will tackle Avignon Bisons and Catalans Dragons feeder club St Esteve XIII Catalans twice as the three clubs fight for a place in the finals series.
“I think our team is pretty special … I think we can beat any team we just have to play for the whole game and be disciplined.” – Albi Tigers prop Brenton Horwood.
Newcastle-raised Horwood arrived shortly before Albi’s Round 3 clash with this weekend’s opponents, Avignon, and was given more than just a culture shock.
“We couldn’t put it together at the start,” said the 25-year-old, who spent the 2015 season with Intrust Super Cup finalists Easts Tigers.
“The day after I arrived here was when we played Avignon in Avignon and we lost 50–0. I was watching the game and thinking ‘What have I got myself into?’
“But over the course of time it’s just become (better). Visually we look better and we can put things together a bit better; and we’ve also developed a physical sense as well.”
The Tigers started their 2015–16 campaign slowly, losing four of their first five matches as the club transitioned from Elite 2 champions in 2014–15 to the top grade.
However, they won six of their next 10 matches to finish the competition’s first phase in sixth spot, and now possess a sense of belief they can go all the way.
“I think our team is pretty special,” said Horwood, who is a qualified aircraft maintenance engineer.
“We’ve certainly come a long way since I’ve been here. We’re certainly gelling and finding momentum at the right time of the season. I think we can beat any team we just have to play for the whole game and be disciplined.
“We are a bunch of misfits. Albi is in its first season in Elite 1 for a few years and we’ve got players coming from Elite 2, players coming from Toulouse; we’ve had four foreign players come in so it takes a little while to learn each other’s game, I suppose.
“We’ve had moments of brilliance, but haven’t been able to put it together for a whole game. Ever since New Year’s it’s become pretty noticeable how well we play.”
A keen surfer as a teen, Horwood’s home in the southern France city of Albi is a far cry from the working class city of Newcastle in coastal New South Wales, where he spent his childhood.
Albi is surrounded by rolling hills and filled with centuries-old cathedrals while Newcastle — home to NRL outfit Newcastle Knights — is flanked by pristine beaches in the east, and gritty coal mines in the west.
However, the close-knit Albi Tigers’ community has ensured a smooth transition Horwood, whose interest in playing rugby league in France was first piqued in 2012 when a former teammate returned from a stint in Montpellier.
“The country is awesome. When I arrived in Albi I felt really welcomed,” he said.
“I immediately settled into the big Albi family. Everyone has been really accommodating. I originally thought there was going to be a lot of issues with the difference in language but most people have been able to speak English, or some form of pigeon English, to help things along.
“The more I hang around with the French players and people the more I pick up the language. I’m getting more confident everyday in understanding things and being understood.”
Like many Australians who find themselves in the south of France playing sport, Horwood regrets not paying more attention in school during one particular subject.
“We definitely did French in Year 7 (at Lambton High School) and I thought to myself, ‘When am I ever going to use this?’ So naive. So naive. It could’ve been very helpful now,” said Horwood, who was keen on returning in 2016–17.
“Obviously now I’m committed to learning it and trying to be as fluent as I possible can before I leave, and it’ll be useful if I come back.”
Albi will host the FFR’s Elite One grand final on May 21–22, providing the towering prop just over three months to sharpen his French language skills hopefully on and off the park.