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Proceeds of Jamie Cudmore’s wine operation help fund another one of the Canadian international’s pet projects – a player safety organization that focuses on concussions. (Ben Nelms For The Globe and Mail)
Proceeds of Jamie Cudmore’s wine operation help fund another one of the Canadian international’s pet projects – a player safety organization that focuses on concussions. (Ben Nelms For The Globe and Mail)

The Inner Competitor

Rugby veteran uncorks a new passion Add to ...

Undergoing surgery to repair a left hand that was broken in the season opener was not exactly how Jamie Cudmore had envisaged starting off his career with new club Oyonnax Rugby in the second tier of French rugby.

However, the enforced layoff has granted the Canadian international the opportunity to focus on another of his passions – wine.

While the cultures of rugby and alcohol have long been intertwined, Cudmore’s 12-year playing career in France has engendered him and his wife, Jennifer, with a love of the more sophisticated side of booze.

“We don’t mind a bit of wine but we’re by no means experts,” he says. “Through our time in France we’ve definitely had some great opportunities to try some great wine, to be in contact with some really good wine makers, so we’ve picked up a bit along the way.”

While studying at business school in Oxford, Britain, a few years ago, Jennifer came up with the idea for her and her husband to launch a wine label of their own, although those plans were quickly shelved with the arrival of their second child. But with the children growing up a little, the plans were revisited and, in October of 2015, Sin Bin was launched with Yellow Card (white), Red Card (red) and rosé editions.

The bottle labels, featuring Cudmore grappling with a bear, poked fun at his career disciplinary record, which has included more than a few spells in the aforementioed sin bin. However, the French found the humour in it, and it quickly became a popular tipple, particularly in the central Auvergne region Cudmore was playing in at the time, selling 30,000-40,000 bottles.

“Everybody thought it was really quite novel of two Canadians trying to sell Auvergnian wine around France but the wine was decent,” he says, explaining that while the white was excellent, the red was a little young, partly because of the region’s climate.

With a year of experience under their belts, the pair decided to have another go, with a particular effort on producing a signature red of which they could be proud. So they switched vineyards, working out of a domain in the southwest of the country, on the border between Bergerac and Bordeaux. They also teamed with a pair of Cudmore’s former teammates, Nick Abendanon and Damien Chouly, in the venture, which really took off when the new wine – Blood Brothers, a Merlot Cabernet – started to ship last month.

It proved a quick hit, with the first batch selling out to Cudmore’s own rugby club as well as wine caves in Geneva, Switzerland, and around France.

“We’ve had some rave reviews,” Cudmore said, adding that the wine was given two stars in 2016’s Hachette Wine Guide, which grades it as “remarkable” and just one star off the top three-star rating.

Cudmore’s wines have picked up distribution throughout France, from rugby clubs to chain supermarkets and a number of restaurants in Paris, as well as England and Wales. However, it likely won’t be in a Canadian liquor store any time soon.

“We’ve definitely looked into it,” he says. “The problem with Canada is the cost of transport and then the tax once it gets there, so it pretty much eats up any [profit] margin we might hope to get.”

Sales of the Blood Brothers wine also help support another of Cudmore’s ventures, the Rugby Safety Network that he set up to improve concussion education in France. In a career that has spanned four World Cups and numerous other tournaments, Cudmore estimates he has had at least 10 to 12 concussions, “but most likely more.”

He has particular concern for concussion awareness in France, which he says is a far cry from the protocols put in place in rugby leagues in England or even North America’s National Hockey League, where people know how dangerous concussions are.

“The biggest thing that we’ve found in France, playing professional rugby here for the last 15 years, in terms of athlete care, they’re decades behind the rest of the world,” he says.

Concern for his health became paramount in the spring of 2015, when his former club, Clermont-Auvergne, advanced to the final of the European Champions Cup. In both the semi-final and the final, Cudmore took hits to the head. Despite failing rugby’s Head Injury Assessment in each game, Cudmore says he was allowed to return to the field on each occasion.

After writing a letter to the club to say he no longer had confidence in its medical staff, Cudmore says he ended up in a meeting with the general manager, coach and two doctors, where they called him “a traitor to the club.” They eventually reasoned with him and said they would take a look at team practices to ensure it wouldn’t happen again.

“A month later I saw one of our players get knocked out in a game and [he] came back on six minutes later,” Cudmore adds.

He says there is respect between players in the French league – one of the top rugby leagues in the world, with player salaries ranging from an average of €9,000 ($13,000) a month in the top tier to half that in the second tier. However, he is adamant that decisions around concussion protocol have to be taken out of the hands of the players, the coaches and administrators.

“There are so many pressures on the coaches, on the player, on the doctor, it’s a big game,” he says. “It’s always a big game, there are always certain pressures that are making the decision to keep guys on the field, and it’s never in the player’s best interests.”

The lock forward, who played 11 years for Clermont before joining Oyonnax this summer, now hopes his foundation can change the culture through education. The not-for-profit organization will be based out of Switzerland and will be going to schools and rugby clubs throughout France to spread the word among coaches and parents.

“It really comes down to education because people [here] just don’t know the dangers of head injury and concussion.”

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Follow on Twitter: @paulattfield

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