Happy days for Munster's model pro Coughlan
IN terms of the professional game, Munster's James Coughlan can only be described as a late bloomer. He was, after all, 26 years of age when offered his first professional rugby contract.
That it was a development contract and paid him less than he was making as a mobile phone salesman was immaterial to the hugely ambitious player – "once I was offered, the answer was never going to be no" – although there was a lot of risk and uncertainty attached as his wife Katri was pregnant with the couple's first child (Finn) at the time.
"Katri immediately told me to go for it. It was all I ever wanted, a chance to prove myself at that level. Once I had Katri's support and blessing I almost took Deccie's arm off."
In his first year as a development player, he played 13 times for the senior side. He only played twice in his second season, but those two appearances meant more at the time – still do – than the 13.
"The first year was the 2007 World Cup year for Ireland, so the internationals were missing a lot and Deccie's hand was forced somewhat. But in the second season, everyone was back, so I really felt like I earned those two caps the hard way," he explained.
When he was offered that first contract, Coughlan was ploughing away on the All-Ireland League scene with Dolphin, luckily enough Declan Kidney's old stomping ground as a player and coach.
He was the No 8 at the back of a scrum that spent most weekends going backwards at a rate of knots, but he was consistently the stand-out performer.
There was another element of good luck attached to Coughlan's elevation to the professional ranks with the arrival of a new coach to Dolphin the previous season in the guise of current Ireland club coach Dave O'Mahony and the signing of a future Ireland international scrum-half.
"Dave had me as fit as I ever was. And then Tomas O'Leary signed and things really started to come together. That first season for all three of us, Tomas and I scored something like 27 or 28 tries between us."
WHEN the offer finally came from Kidney it wasn't a huge surprise and, since then, Coughlan has been making up for lost time in spectacular fashion. He acclimatised quickly to the lifestyle – "it took maybe a year to get up to the level physically" – and established himself as a vital cog in the Munster team.
In his breakthrough 2010/11 season, he ousted Ireland international Denis Leamy from the starting team and has been an ever-present since.
Injuries have interrupted at times of course. He missed the back end of last season after breaking a bone in his hand during the Heineken Cup quarter-final loss to Ulster and was supposed to miss five months of this season when he tore his groin three games into the campaign.
That he was back within three months surprised no-one within the Munster set-up. Neither did how he filled his days. Instead of wallowing in self-pity he knocked on Rob Penney's door and told the coach to put him to work.
In between physiotherapy sessions and scans, he was detailed to Munster's video-analysis department to analyse upcoming oppositions and critique Munster's own performances for the coaches and players.
That selflessness isn't surprising to his former Munster forwards' coach and current coach with the Super 15 Brumbies side, Laurie Fisher. Fisher spent three years coaching Coughlan and remains an avid fan of the player.
"James always struck me as being a good student of the game," said Fisher.
"He understands rugby, has an instinctive ability to read the game and does the simple things very well. He also is prepared to do the work off the field in order to contribute to the tactics and performance of both the individual and team on the field," added Fisher.
one of Coughlan's greatest strengths is his ability to invariably do the right thing at the right time, among the most important attributes for a player.
It's also an asset that has always been valued above all else by Munster, as evidenced by his two-year contract extension announced last week.
Of the nine players who signed new contracts last week, Coughlan's was the stand-out name. Simon Zebo is 22 years of age, Dave O'Callaghan turned 23 today. JJ Hanrahan is just 20 and Sean Dougall has yet to celebrate his 24th birthday.
Coughlan is 32 years of age. It is general policy that, when players who are not centrally contracted to the IRFU turn 30 years of age, they are offered only one-year deals. Doug Howlett, for example, signed a one-year contract at the end of last season.
Coughlan's enduring excellence, and the fact that this is a player clearly cut from the same cloth as the warriors who marched before in Munster's blood-red uniform, made his situation unique among those other 30-somethings in the squad.
His case was certainly strengthened by the known interest from abroad – a couple of high-profile clubs have been loitering with intent for the past couple of contract negotiations in the hopes of luring the back-row to the Premiership – but it was unconscionable from Munster's perspective that they would lose a player of such importance to them.
"Of all the provinces, I think Munster take the view that it doesn't matter what age you are as long as you are contributing," said Coughlan.
"Age doesn't matter; it's about your ability to perform at a level that's bettering the team."
full international recognition
Players of Coughlan's ilk are increasingly rare species in the modern game, especially in the back-row where often more value is put on brawn than brain in this increasingly gladiatorial contest. Coughlan is deceptively powerful, but it is his rugby brain that is his most valuable asset.
It's what got him through those early days when he simply couldn't match his peers physically. Since the journey began in 2006 he has quickly caught up in every facet and has been an influential part of some of Munster's biggest days since.
He, for example, captained the side to victory over Australia (2010), was an integral part of the side who almost humbled the All Blacks (2009), won a Heineken Cup (2008) and two Celtic Leagues (2009 & 2011).
His progress and importance to the squad hasn't gone unnoticed by his team-mates or the supporters and he was voted Player of the Year with Munster (2011), beating out two Lions in Ronan O'Gara and Paul O'Connell for the accolade. He was again shortlisted for the award in 2012.
Why full international recognition has eluded him so far continues to be a head-scratcher. Coughlan has international experience at Sevens level and played for the Ireland senior side against the Barbarians in a non-Test match last May. He has been included in Ireland training camps in recent seasons, but that's as far as it has gone.
Coughlan is not naïve enough to get dragged into the conversation, but it's as clear as the scar on his hand from last year's operation that it pains him deeply that he's been constantly overlooked regardless of his excellent form.
"International rugby is the pinnacle, but it's not something I can control. I am disappointed when the squads are announced and I'm not in them, because that's where you want to be.
"You break your back with the stick in the hope of getting the carrot, but if it doesn't happen, I can't let it fester or it'll rob me of time I should be spending with Katri or the kids. All I can do is keep putting myself in the position where Declan (Kidney) has a decision to make. Other than that, there is nothing more I can do."
It will be business as usual this weekend with Munster chasing a four-try bonus point win in Murrayfield. As ever Coughlan's calm assurance at the base of the scrum will be a reassuring presence in what is a season-defining game.