Saturday 7 December 2019

Grass routes

There's no guarantee he'll start against Toulon but, having come up the hard way via the AIL, Munster's James Coughlan is determined to take every chance he gets

It was the AIL that brought James Coughlan to Munster's attention in 2006 - now the 30-year-old is a regular feature in the province's Heinken Cup squad.
It was the AIL that brought James Coughlan to Munster's attention in 2006 - now the 30-year-old is a regular feature in the province's Heinken Cup squad.

LAST Sunday morning, around 1.30am, James Coughlan's past and present collided.

Coughlan had just landed back in Cork from Reading, straight from playing 80 minutes in Munster's 23-17 Heineken Cup defeat to London Irish, and he and a couple of team-mates went in search of comfort food.

Walking into Eddie Rocket's, Coughlan was greeted by the sight of his All-Ireland League club-mates from Dolphin enjoying a night of sorrow-drowning after losing their Division 1A match that afternoon.

"All the boys were there, absolutely off their faces," recalled Coughlan. "A few years ago I would have been right in there with them and they were egging me on.

"No chance. I felt like a 'dry balls' but between getting back to see the kids, the recovery session the next day and just being wrecked, it was a case of 'sorry lads, I'm off home'."

The All-Ireland League may be increasingly marginalised in Irish rugby but is still central to the story. The elder statesmen in the Munster squad -- John Hayes, Alan Quinlan, David Wallace, Donncha O'Callaghan, Ronan O'Gara and Peter Stringer -- all cut their teeth in the AIL, while the likes of Coughlan and Damien Varley used the domestic league as a springboard to the professional game through Dolphin and Garryowen respectively.


Indeed, the 40 minutes Jerry Flannery played for Shannon against Garryowen last week could see him play a part in Saturday's clash with Toulon.

Having toiled for years in the domestic backwaters, Coughlan has the height of admiration for the AIL competition and the men who play in it.

"I've huge respect for the guy who's boll**ed after a day's work on the building site and is grabbing a sandwich in a garage on the way to training in the rain on Tuesday and Thursday nights. We (professionals) are lucky to be able to go the gym on a Wednesday morning, train during the day, have our rest time and everything taken care of for us; those club guys do it the hard way.

"I still love playing club rugby when I get the chance and though I'm thrilled to have the opportunity to play pro, there's definitely times you miss the old AIL days. It's where I come from."

It was the AIL that brought Coughlan to Munster's attention in 2006 but, given the back-row competition, progression was steady rather than spectacular, with 30 appearances spread over three years.

Last season was something of a breakthrough. Coughlan played 17 times for Munster and well enough at No 8 to force himself into the starting team for the Heineken Cup semi-final against Biarritz.

In style, he is very similar to former Munster great -- and current defence coach -- Anthony Foley, with the same knack of doing the right thing at the right time. Coughlan also has an innate dynamism and ball-handling skills from his time with the Ireland Sevens team.

Last weekend, he played very well in a losing cause (although an early penalty give-away and missed line-out lift on captain Denis Leamy rankle) and he is in the mix to feature against Toulon on Saturday. However, Coughlan is up against some serious Munster heavyweights in the form of Quinlan and Wallace and is philosophical about holding onto his place.

"I was surprised that I got the nod last week but was happy with how I played, even though I was very frustrated at losing a game we could have won -- we all were.

"There's a lot of competition there, particularly in the back row, quality players with experience. I feel I've done all I can to be selected, so if I don't make it, they will have a good reason and I'll just get on with it. There will be opportunities: the November internationals are coming up and the Six Nations, when guys will be away, that's when you step up."

There have been suitors from the English Premiership but the 29-year-old family man is happy in his job, happy in Cork and working on a plan for the future.

"I've got two kids, Finn my four-year-old son and a girl, Aoibhin, who's nearly 12 months old. I've started a four-year course in Physical Education up in UCC. I'm actually doing it with (former Munster and Ireland flanker) Ken O'Connell and we're like the fellas from 'Old School' down the back of the class. Ken is 42 and we call him 'Frank The Tank'.

"We actually got invited to a class party last week but I could hardly say to say to the wife 'Okay, you look after the kids, I'm just going into town on the p*ss with my class, there's a student special on Smirnoff Ice'."

While his off-field life is busy and fulfilling, his work imperative is to help Munster get back to winning ways against Toulon.

"Everyone is disappointed with the defeats to Leinster and London Irish. We set targets and one of them is to be the best Irish province. If we had been a small bit cuter and a small bit better at the right time we could have beaten Leinster but by losing we gave them a leg up as well, got their season up and running.

"Both those games swung on small things and we're setting about putting things right, like our discipline and our line-out. We need to focus on forcing the opposition into making mistakes, put the ball down there and put the pressure on and we can open up when we have to. Rog is on his game, Johne Murphy is playing really well and Keith (Earls) is class.

"There has been a bit of a hysterical reaction but I would say 'chill out', we'll be alright. This is a quality squad and coaching set-up: a bit more accuracy and we can do some serious damage. That starts this weekend, and I hope I can play a part."

One more thing. Supporters may have heard Coughlan's team-mates calling him 'Chucken' during last Saturday's match -- where did that originate?

"My mother used to call me 'little Chucken head' when I was a kid. I don't know what it means but someone in the park picked up on it and it's followed me everywhere, including Munster, If someone calls me James, I know I'm in trouble."

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