French Top 14 abuzz as sacked Wasps stars shine

Wasps' financial meltdown left the club in tatters and booted out of the English Premiership, but some players have rebounded in fine form in the Top 14, where life has proved to be different from that in Coventry.

Vincent Koch ran out for South Africa against Italy in Genoa on November 19. The next day he was on a plane back to his homeland to finalise his visa for France having bagged a contract with Stade Francais.

No time was lost as the prop touched down in Paris to make his Top 14 debut three days later in a narrow defeat by Toulon.

It was a true baptism of fire for the South African after just a handful of training sessions and unable to converse in the language of Moliere. "I could just say 'hello' pretty much," Koch admitted to AFP.

"Everything came so quick" after Wasps were put into administration in mid-October, Koch said.

"When you start playing professional rugby, you never think that’s something that could ever happen to you."

After six seasons at Saracens, the 32-year-old front-rower was laid off by Wasps without having even played a single game in the colours of his new club.

"It put a lot of pressure on myself, on my family," Koch said. "I had two weeks to try to sort things out before I joined up with the Springboks.

"In that two weeks I had to look for a new contract, try to figure out what the future held for me and then as well move everything from my house because I couldn’t stay there.

"I had to get someone to move my house, stop all my debit orders, TV, the wifi... Trying to get out of my housing lease as well."

- 'Exciting adventure' -

Jack Willis had spent his entire professional career at Wasps until the call came on October 17 for a meeting at the training ground.

"We were just expecting to be told that we were going into administration," Willis said.

"We weren't expecting to be told that we're all losing our jobs.

"When we were told we were made redundant, the room just went into complete silence and everyone was shocked. There were quite a few tears from everyone afterwards, it was a very emotional day," Willis told AFP.

The England flanker also landed in the French elite, at Toulouse, not so far from his younger brother Tom, who is turning out in the back-row for Top 14 rivals Bordeaux-Begles until the end of the season when he heads home to Saracens in a bid to play for England.

Among 10 Wasps players to have crossed the Channel, with others having joined Super Rugby and United Rugby Championship clubs, are scrum-half Dan Robson (Pau), prop Biyi Alo (Racing 92) and flanker Brad Shields (Perpignan).

"There are a lot of us who have found stuff now, which is brilliant, but there are also a lot of guys who haven't found jobs," Willis added. "It's been a bit of a roller-coaster couple of months."

Turning to Toulouse, Willis said: "It does feel a bit crazy, but it is also really exciting.

"I think if I had stayed locally to another (English) team that was close it would have felt really weird day to day. Whereas this is such a big change that it just feels like an exciting adventure."

- Well integrated -

Bok prop Koch also opted to highlight the positive over the negative from a situation out of the players' control, calling it an "unbelievable journey" for him, his partner and young child.

"It’s definitely better than Coventry so we’ll definitely make good memories here," Koch said of his new life in the French capital.

"Some day in life, you get to sit down and reflect on what happened. We can actually tick a box and say, listen, we had an unbelievable time in Paris, in one of the most beautiful countries in the world.

"I always make a joke saying there’s worst places to be in the world than Paris."

Koch, part of the Springbok squad that won the 2019 Rugby World Cup, touched down in the French capital with a former Wasps teammate in Paolo Odogwu.

"We knew they were coming out of a tricky period, but they were happy to bounce back with us. They've really integrated very well," said Stade coach Gonzalo Quesada.

Odogwu also has an English compatriot in the Stade squad in the shape of outside back Harry Glover.

"They're both single and living in a flat in (the chic central Parisian area of) Saint-Germain. So we'll be keeping an eye on them!"

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