Toulon, France, is becoming the last chance saloon for Australian rugby league stars, and it's all thanks to one man -- the eccentric French millionaire Mourad Boudjellal. We'll get to him in a moment.
But first, a word on the latest Australian to end up on the Côte-d'Azur. It is of course NRL player Ben Barba, who has just signed a deal with Toulon club RC Toulonnais.
Fresh from an NRL premiership win with the Cronulla Sharks, and in the middle of his 12 match ban for cocaine use, the elusive fullback looks like he's found himself a loophole.
The NRL has no jurisdiction over contracted players who are undergoing a ban, and who choose to play a different sport in a different country. That means Barba's switch from rugby league to rugby union could go ahead as soon as next week.
French rugby is currently about halfway through its season. Toulon issued a statement confirming the Barba signing, which in part read:
The Australian star of Rugby XIII [rugby league] Ben Barba committed with the Rugby Club Toulonnais until the end of this season. [He] should arrive in Toulon next week and be available for the next match."
Barba, whose brilliant but erratic NRL career has been punctuated by a history of gambling, alcohol and drug issues, is not the first troubled NRL star to sign with Toulon of late.
In November last year, the French powerhouse announced the signing of troubled Eels player Semi Radradra. In January it was revealed that the $1.5 million two-year deal would start at the end of the 2017 season. Radradra, 24, will face court this month over domestic violence charges.
SO WHY TOULON?
The French port city on the Mediterranean has the sort of sunny climate and relaxed lifestyle which suits Australians.
Numerous Australian rugby union stars have played for RC Toulonnais over the years. Wallabies George Gregan and Quade Cooper enjoyed stints there, while Matt Giteau, Drew Mitchell and James O'Connor are among those currently on the books.
O'Connor is an interesting one. He debuted for the Wallabies aged 18, which is why he seems like he's been around forever, but he's still just 26. Like Ben Barba, O'Connor's career was derailed by alcohol issues. Like Barba, European rugby provided a lifeline.
But apart from the lifestyle and the second chance away from prying Australian media, Toulon's greatest appeal for Australian payers is the bloody good coin. Mostly that's down to the club's outspoken and charismatic president Mourad Boudjellal.
An independently wealthy 56-year-old businessman, Boudjellal last week cancelled his players' holidays after a loss to a rival team. That's typical Boudjellal -- impulsive and eccentric. He's not the sort of person to vet players extensively on their behavioural history. He just wants stars, and is prepared to pay for them.
And if they don't quite work out, well, expect him to say as much. After Boudjellal replaced England rugby superstar Jonny Wilkinson with Australian Quade Cooper, he famously said it was like switching from foie gras to paté. Converted into Aussie, that's like going from rump steak to party pies. Ouch.
SO CAN BARBA COME BACK TO THE NRL THIS YEAR?
Barba's management drew up a one-year contract with the Sharks for 2017, but the deal has not yet been ratified by the NRL. Whether they now approve it is anyone's guess.
Barba would be available for the Sharks by the middle of May, although his availability would presumably depend on how RC Toulonnais fares this year. The French Top 14 rugby semi finals are in May with the final in June. Currently, RC Toulonnais sits 5th on the 14-team ladder.
Meanwhile we eagerly await Boudjellal's assessment of Barba, preferably via a food analogy.
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