'Pride is key – the club has that real Munster feeling'
It was hard to leave the Reds but Coughlan enjoying his new life in Pau
Published 04/08/2014 | 02:30
The way James Coughlan sees it, there had come a time in his life when he needed to do what was best for James Coughlan and not for Munster.
After all, he had spent the last seven years of his life putting Munster before everything else – his social life, his career and, most of all, his Finnish wife Katri and their the three kids, Aoibhinn, Finn and Elsie.
And so, when he inquired politely whether there might be another deal in the offing when his latest expired next summer, they replied just as politely in the negative, the 33-year-old had to take stock.
Some said he was tossing away his international hopes – pipe-dreams, more like. Tours to America and Argentina passed by in consecutive summers, even perfectly suited home tussles with Samoa, but not a sniff.
There was a surfeit of plamás from Joe Schmidt and the rest, but precious little tangible reward.
"I didn't hand my career over," Coughlan stresses, "but I had to think about the years ahead. I didn't want to park up at the end of next season. I don't know if that was expected of me, but it never came into my thinking."
And so it is that we find ourselves in the French city of Pau, bidding farewell to Vincenzo Nibali on the day when he strengthened his grip on the maillot jaune; later the Italian would mercilessly soar into the clouds mingling with the summit of Tourmalet on his way to the Tour de France glory.
By the time riders disappeared like sun-strewn dots towards the Tour's last summit, Coughlan had already returned to the foothills of his pre-season work.
Pau, nestled beneath the Pyrenees in this fanatical rugby region, have offered him not just security – a two-year deal with an option – but a glimpse of a sustainable future in sport and life. Not that it was easy to walk away and leave everything behind.
"It was tough at the time but if I hadn't moved now, I would never have moved," says the Corkman. "It wasn't ever something I'd thought about previously. I only ever wanted to play for Munster.
"But I knew I wanted to go coaching and this would be a great opportunity to coach. There are 30 professional coaches and you see what the lads are doing at Grenoble and with Eddie O'Sullivan coming into Biarritz."
He sees the advantages for the kids too, a new life, a new language – they already speak Finnish and Irish. "It'll be a great head start for them," Coughlan says.
Pau is different to Munster and yet so much the same – the car he drives bears the club sticker so he is cajoled by punters on the street. "Je suis desolé pour ma mauvais Francais," Coughlan apologises. They cross the street and bear-hug him nonetheless.
"I got a great feeling from the moment I walked into the place," he enthuses. "It was like walking into a professional Dolphin. Everyone here loves being here and they all want the club to do well, that real Munster feeling.
"And we know they'll be booing if things go wrong, we want that.."
Pau's aim is promotion, of course, but they're in stellar company in Pro D2 – both Perpignan and Biarritz, aristocratic names of French rugby, descended from the Top 14 last term.
Biarritz, with former Ireland coach O'Sullivan now at the helm, are a target to be shot at by all teams now. only an hour or so's spin down the road, theirs will be an even feistier clash than the traditional derbies against Tarbes.
"You make your home place a fortress and pick up what you can away from home; you don't need to win a whole lot away to make the play-offs," Coughlan says.
"The pride in the club is key. It's like the AIL at home – most of the lads here have known nothing but playing for Pau."
There was a time when it looked as if Coughlan would know nothing else but playing for Dolphin; after all, he didn't play for Munster until he was 26, when Declan Kidney started taking interest in games as a young Tomas O'Leary was making strides.
Kidney admired the No 8's ability to harness intelligence, skill and guts into a performance. He would go on to play 139 times for Munster, picking up a Celtic League title along the way.
"If I played once for Munster, I would have been over the moon, especially given where I started from," says the former O2 rep. "I played in Heineken Cup semi-finals and okay, we didn't win one. But I prefer to look back on what I did achieve rather than what I didn't.
"Winning the league when Paul Darbyshire – Munster's former physio, cruelly thieved by the ghastly motor neurone disease – was there with us at the end... the great days against Australia and New Zealand... beating Perpignan last season when we were gone ... "
Now is the time to create new memories. The style of the French game will suit him as he ages – "that's a backhanded compliment if ever I heard one!" – and his ambition to be still playing 10 or 12 years after his first professional Munster game is hardly elusive.
"As long as the body is good and I'm playing well enough ... at home the age is a big thing, but here it's not. It's like the NFL, as long as you're making the marks, you're playing well and you're fit, as long as you're able to do the job, they don't care how old you are."
He doesn't want to be defined by his failure to win a full Ireland cap (he did play Sevens and represent Ireland against the Barbarians).
David Corkery, who only knows how to talk one way, put him straight one day last May. Better off being called out for never winning a cap than being given one for just for the sake of hanging around.
"Listen, I know what I have achieved in my career," Coughlan adds.
"Anything else was out of my control. But if fellas want to call me the best player never to win a cap or whatever, let 'em at it!"
He can deal adequately with anything life flings at him; now it is time for James Coughlan to throw himself into life. Few will not wish him well on his travels.
- James Coughlan is a brand ambassador for SEAT Ireland and recently received the keys to his all new SEAT Alhambra. To see the full range, log on to www.seat.ie