In recent months nearly thirty players have moved to the French Top 14 from southern hemisphere sides. The departures of Bryan Habana, Rene Ranger and Digby Ioane, to name a few, hit the headlines, and this has allowed certain in form players to slip quietly into Europe largely unnoticed. After being sidelined for the best part of 12 weeks due to a thumb injury, and more recently a knee strain, Peter Kimlin, one of Grenoble’s two summer signings from the Brumbies, is close to a return to action and ready to make his mark in France.
“It has been a frustrating time. The club have invested a lot in me and Dan (Palmer, who was also his teammate at the Brumbies) and it’s disappointing we’ve been injured but we’re both looking forward to getting back out on the field,” he tells me on a sunny and surprisingly warm late October day in Grenoble city centre.
A frustrating few months, perhaps, but overall the Canberra born lock-cum-back rower can also look back on 2013 with a great sense of satisfaction. Captaining the Brumbies to a win over the British and Irish Lions, a first for an Australian provincial team since 1971, was understandably one of the best moments of his career. But there were other unforgettable moments for him and team this year, as the Brumbies reached their first Super Rugby final since 2004. What was his personal highlight?
“The win at Loftus over the Blue Bulls in the Super 15 semi final was special. No one expected us to come out of there with a try, let alone to actually win the game”.
Kimlin was not at all surprised by the Brumbies’ form in this year’s Super 15. “We were confident after the first year with Jake (White). We came a long way in 2012 – this year was just a progression for a group of players who had already played together for 12 months”.
In terms of Jake White, what does he consider as the 2007 Rugby World Cup winning coach’s main strength? “He surrounds himself with great coaches – Laurie Fisher, Stephen Larkham and Dean Benton, who I regard as one of the best strength and conditioning coaches around. If you asked him the same question he would say exactly the same. It’s disappointing he’s not there next year but the Brumbies will do fine”.
Ironically Kimlin sustained the thumb injury in that semi final against the Bulls and this ultimately scuppered his chances of adding to his two Wallabies caps, both of which were against Italy in 2009. “I thought it was minor. I was always going to play the final, no matter what it was, but I never thought it was broken”.
A scan following the 27-22 final loss to the Chiefs confirmed the worst and Kimlin, who had a brief spell in England with the Exeter Chiefs in 2010, which was also cut short through injury, was forced to withdraw from Ewen McKenzie’s inaugural Wallabies squad, for the Rugby Championship. He missed the 2009 Tri Nations in similar circumstances, after being named in the initial squad only to pull out at the eleventh hour with a shoulder problem. “I’ve not been the luckiest with injuries” he says with a slight air of disappointment.
Every professional rugby player’s goal is to play for their country as many times as possible, but for those on the periphery of international selection a sense of realism is required – they have to make the most of their short rugby careers.
With no ARU contract, which provides far more financial security to the select Australian stars inside the Wallabies set up (similar to the England Elite squad), at the start of the year, Kimlin, 28, signed for Grenoble in February, but his subsequent Super Rugby form thereafter was excellent and he was named by Robbie Deans in the extended Wallabies squad to play the Lions. Although he did not feature in the test series, he was very much back in the mix for further international honours.
His contract at Grenoble is for one season, with the option of staying for a second. A return to Australia to be in contention for the Wallabies 2015 Rugby World Cup squad is a possibility but he is happy with the decision he made to move to the Rhône-Alpes region of France with his fiancée. “If I looked back in ten years and realised there had been a chance to live and play rugby in France and I had not taken it I would have regretted it”.
This year’s Top 14 is the most competitive in years, with the top nine sides currently separated by just six points after ten rounds and after Saturday’s win over Oyonnax, Grenoble lie in sixth spot. Despite the present uncertainty surrounding next season’s European competitions, the focus for most sides is on securing a top six place to ensure qualification for next year’s top tier European event, likely to be the new Rugby Champions Cup, which would also guarantee participation in the end of season Top 14 play offs.
Grenoble’s most impressive win of the season was arguably the away triumph in Paris against a Racing Metro side that included Jonny Sexton, but overall Kimlin has been surprised that French sides place less importance on winning their away games. “To see the squad win in Paris was great for our season, especially as teams in France don’t put as much emphasis on away games. From an Australian, or southern hemisphere, perspective you never target a losing bonus point. If we can change that mentality we’ll do well but that’s a huge challenge”.
All going well Kimlin is set to make his debut for Grenoble this weekend, against Montpellier, or failing that in three weeks time after a short break in the Top 14 schedule due to the autumn internationals. He will add a bit more quality to a side that is built on a hard work ethic, with fewer superstar names, and he will be looking to instil that winning, Loftus-esque, mentality on the road. Kimlin might yet prove to be one of the best imports this year from the southern hemisphere to Europe’s richest league.
By Alistair Pickering (@FollowRugbySite)