Henri Matisse – a man who could tell his tints from his hues – said the skies of Perpignan were the finest in all France. Salvador Dali once stood on the platform of the railway station and – as he put it in his soi-disant ‘Diary of a Genius’ – ‘had a precise vision of the constitution of the universe’. Two years later – this is now 1965 – he painted the celebrated ‘Le Gare de Perpignan’ in surrealist homage to his ‘cosmogonic discovery’, a vast work in vibrant oils which contained neither a train nor a station. The man was a fruitcake.

But you come here to ‘Perpinya’ where the Pyrenees frown down on the Mediterranean and the allure is everywhere, not least in the citrus-coloured tenements and the hive of medieval streets shrouded in flapping laundry. Perry Freshwater arrived here in 2003 with barely two words of French to rub together and eight years later, he’s become a cornerstone of the scrum, a captain of the club and – whisper it quietly – as much a Catalan as he is a Kiwi.

“Perpignan is just a fabulous place to be. My wife Fran’s a Kiwi too and we’re really happy in France given all our three girls were born here. You’re by the sea in a gorgeous climate where we can swim in the morning and ski in the afternoon. This place supposedly has 2,500 hours of sunshine per year. What’s not to like?’

Catalonia – Catalunya, Cataluna – has almost more history than it can handle; you can trace the threads back through the murderous Spanish Civil War to a time when the city was the continental capital of the Kings of Majorca. This is very much a town that thinks of itself as Catalan first and French second.

‘The Catalan identity is a tough thing to put your finger on but you do feel there’s a beef here with the rest of France,’ says Freshwater. ‘It’s a bit them and us. It’s why our home games mean so much and why every time you stick the jersey on and run out at the Stade Aime Giral, the hairs stand up on the back of your neck. The supporters here are just bonkers and this place does feels like our own little corner of the world. So while we’re not so great when we’re away from here, other teams hate coming to play in Perpignan.’

Certainly the blood and the gold runs thicker than water as the Heineken Cup quarter-final against Toulon earlier this month showed in spades; a game moved to the Olympic Stadium in Barcelona in front of – seemingly – the entire Catalan nation; one of those rare, life-affirming moments where the sport comes a distant second to the occasion. For anyone who was there, it was a blue moon of a day.

‘No, that was unforgettable, just huge,’ says Freshwater, ‘although you get so wrapped up in the match you don’t really take it all in until the final whistle. The quarter-final in Barcelona for us was everything and not just for the club but for the region and for the sport here. It really was an incredible day, what with the weather and the colour and the noise and, of course, the win. But I keep telling the guys, it isn’t enough. The tournament’s about the trophy and we need to go on and win the bloody thing. ’

No question what sealed the day was the epic victory and what sealed the epic victory was the try scored by ‘agua fresca’ as Perry Freshwater is somewhat strangely known hereabouts, strangely given the phrase is neither French nor Catalan but Spanish for – obviously – ‘fresh water’. No matter: his try was a collector’s item.

‘I get paid to push not to score tries; in fact I can’t even remember the last one,’ he says. ‘To be honest, it was just pure laziness on my part. We had a scrum that turned and I was walking across the rubble and I saw the ball and flopped over the line it with it – it couldn’t have been more than twenty-centimetres – and the ball got caught in my belly button, which is why I took a while to get up. In thirty years I’ll think about it and I might even feel quite proud but at the time all it meant was that we were in front and that was all that mattered.’

It’s not often a loose-head prop gets treated to the director’s close-up, the strap across the screen or the high motion replay of the seminal score in the game but there he was, kissing his wristband as his team-mates swamped him, the wristband he always wears at the office and which carries the nicknames of the Little Women in his life.

‘Madison’s the eldest and she’s ‘Moo, Moo’,’ he explains. ‘Ella is ‘Ellapants’ and Aurelie – she’s the new one – she’s so fat we just call her ‘Cheeks’ because she’s got bigger cheeks than I have. They’re all just gorgeous and whenever they see a bald, fat guy in shorts on the TV, they point and say, ‘Daddy’’.

Perry Freshwater is not short of admirers. Here in Perpignan he has a status best described as ‘cult’ and back in England it’s much the same courtesy of the ‘Perry Freshwater Appreciation Society’; a bunch of students who – inexplicably it must be said – have dedicated their entire lives to the worship of their eponymous hero.

‘They’re a bunch of amazingly funny guys that I met in Wellington,’ he says. ‘And they then started turning up at our European games with these t-shirts on and it’s gone on from there. They’re lunatics. I think they’ve been to every single European game we’ve played in the UK so they’re fantastic supporters. They seem to be campaigning right now for me to made Mayor Perpignan but I don’t think that’s going to happen, not with my French irregular verbs.’

Aside from trying to turn Perpignan into Perry-pignan, the PFAS is also trying to market the film rights to Perry’s life-story, prompting much online debate about who should play the leading role. ‘It seems to have come down to one of Danny de Vito, Bruce Willis or Jo Brand,’ says Perry, a little bashfully. ‘I think Jo Brand would capture me pretty well.’

If you’d told him back in the eighties that he’d end up being press-ganged for public office or touted around Hollywood, he’d have had you certified. Back then he was living in New Zealand – his Plaistow-born father had emigrated via the merchant navy – and Perry was a fifteen-year-old fly-half at Wellington College.

‘I’m not sure how or why I was playing ten given I was useless but there was a trial match for the first fifteen with me at fly-half on one team and the future All Black, Marc Ellis, on the other. It was then that the fourth-form Geography teacher took me on one side, told me I was too fat and stuck me in the front row. I still think I was hard done by.’

Typically he made a very decent fist of the new role, turning out for New Zealand at U19 and U21 and never looking back. ‘I think you’ve got the element of hand-to-hand combat in the front row and it’s good to rub ears and get stuck in,’ he says. ‘I think we all try to cheat a bit and get the edge on the other guy and jump the gun if we can. Everyone does that. And I’m told women find props irresistible. It’s not surprising. They’ve got eyes, haven’t they?’

Ironically, for a man whose father left England for New Zealand, Perry did the exact opposite, arriving in Leicester in 1995 for a year and ending up staying for eight; out of the limelight behind the fabled ABC Club but hugely respected and highly popular. In all ‘Pezza’ played 130 times for the Tigers and won two Heineken Cup winners’ medals in 2001 and 2002.

‘Yes, those are pretty fond memories,’ he says, ‘and there’s no greater feeling than winning at the highest level or sharing it all with your mates afterwards. In 2002 certainly the cup ended up looking a bit battered. I don’t think it went under the bus but it got kicked around a bit. And then it went missing along with Richard Cockerill so I went up to his room and he was fast asleep on his bed with the cup, cradling it like a baby and still holding a pint of beer in his hand even though he was spark out. Just tremendous.’

Typically for such a gregarious man, what he remembers most about those years was the camaraderie; sharing a house with a young Richard Cockerill and the – almost nuclear – battles to take the back seat of the bus from the likes of Garforth, Richards, Johnson and Wells on the way home from an away win.

‘That was always the aim of every coach journey and it was great fun,’ he says. ‘And I got on a few times mainly by just closing my eyes and taking a run at it. I’ve never heard or seen anything like it, full on fights, people losing teeth, bleeding noses, clothes and blazers getting ripped off and tossed out of the window. We used to turn up at post-match functions back at Welford Road with ties wrapped around our heads, no shirt, no pants; absolute chaos. It was just incredible. John Wells defending his spot is not a pretty sight and he was a policeman at the time.’

Intriguingly, Perpignan went to Leicester in this season’s pool stages where they drew; their best result in a country where they’ve never won, ludicrously so given this is a team who were the Top 14 Runners-Up last year and the Champions of France the year before that.

‘Certainly there seems to be a mental block about England because we just can’t get a win there,’ says Freshwater. ‘We’re baffling away from home. Sometimes we’re on our game and sometimes we’re not. To this day I don’t know what it is. Sometimes you can feel it in the warm up, and you’re thinking ‘come on, guys, wake up’ – especially if we’re playing at two thirty which is siesta time – but then we’ll come out and give someone a thumping. Other times everyone’s pumped up and eyeballs are out and you get on the pitch and you lose.’

‘No question it was different at Leicester. Johnno was captain and there was Cockerill and Rowntree and Back, all of them huge leaders of men and they made sure everyone was right. And we don’t perhaps have that here. There’s the captain, there’s the odd senior player who talks but it’s mainly the captain and everyone just gets on with it. At Leicester, though, you were in the right head space and you were up for the game wherever you were playing.’

You sense that French rugby is still struggling somewhat with professionalism, partly because they’re naturally such outstanding rugby players and partly because it’s just not in the culture of the game here. ‘To be honest it’s not that much different now to when I first pitched up here in 2003,’ says Freshwater. ‘It really isn’t. There’s a couple of weights sessions scheduled each week but the rest are optional and if you want a protein shake you buy your own at ‘Carrefour’. But then, to me, professionalism isn’t about how many ice baths you have each week; it’s how you manage yourself and your body. A few guys drink a bit, a few smoke a bit but nothing to excess; it’s an attitude, a mental thing and I think there’s certainly room for improvement. We just need to find some consistency.’

Starting, you’d assume, with the upcoming semi-final at Northampton, which is the passport to the Grand Day Out in Cardiff in May and potentially an historic moment for Perry Freshwater who’s on the cusp of becoming only the fourth person in the history of the competition – Carbonneau, Mendez, Heymans – to win the pot with two different clubs. The key question, you suspect, being was Barcelona Perpignan’s final or is there more in the tank?

‘We’ve talked about that and how we need to think beyond Barcelona,’ says Freshwater. ‘But it’s one thing to say it and another to do it. We just need to go out and play. It’s difficult talking to the media before games because you look like an absolute idiot afterwards if you lose so I’m not going to talk about going there and winning the game; let’s just play and we’ll see where that takes us. I’m expecting a bloody tough day at the office.’

No question the team will look to Freshwater for inspiration – he is that influential having played more than 200 times for the club and captained the team in a hefty number of those games, a stupendous honour for a Kiwi at a Catalan club.

‘I’ve always thought it’s best to jump into a changing room right from the start,’ he says. ‘I did have some lessons when I first arrived but most of my French was picked up in the dressing room where you have to be happy to make a fool of yourself. I still get my verbs mixed up now. But the captaincy thing: I think I was just the oldest bloke standing at the time and they needed someone to interpret in the Heineken Cup. For all that, it was a huge honour and one day I’ll look back on that and think it wasn’t so bad.’

Along the way there were also ten caps for England, several of them during the 2007 World Cup – ‘poor as we were at the start of that tournament, it showed me that anything’s possible if you can get out of your pool’ – but at 37 there’s still an itch to scratch. Certainly he’s in good order and Perpignan have offered him another year.

‘I spent a while sitting on the bench behind Graham Rowntree at Leicester so there aren’t so many miles on the clock,’ he says. ‘And I can still put on my own socks on a Sunday morning, so that’s a good enough gauge for me. I still feel competitive and I love my work and my life. One day, yeah, we’ll probably head home to Wellington but, right now, I’m the luckiest guy in the world.’

23rd April 2013

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