Sunday 18 March 2018

'Going to Grenoble was such a big learning curve for me'

After finding his feet in pro game in France, scrum-half is keen to kick on in Munster shirt

James Hart returns this weekend to France where he began his professional
career. Photo: Ramsey Cardy/Sportsfile
James Hart returns this weekend to France where he began his professional career. Photo: Ramsey Cardy/Sportsfile

Daragh Small

There are sub-plots aplenty for this weekend's huge Champions Cup tie between Munster and Racing 92 at the stunning U Arena in the suburbs of Paris.

Former Munster great Donnacha Ryan will face off against his old province, while Gerbrandt Grobler could also line out against a team he once played for after his unlucky injury in pre-season.

The announcement that Simon Zebo will join forces with the Top 14 giants at the end of this season has added a little bite to the key Champions Cup fixture, but in the Munster ranks the insider knowledge provided by former Racing No 9 James Hart could be very useful.

The 26-year-old scrum-half left France in 2017 to join up with Munster and fight for his place in the coveted No 9 jersey.

Hart's initial departure from Ireland came as a result of a devastating phone call on the day of his Leaving Cert results, where he had been overlooked for a place in the Leinster sub-academy.

In his stead, Luke McGrath and John Cooney were given their slots and they have since gone on to wear nine at Leinster and Ulster respectively.

But the Clontarf man is yet to find his feet in Limerick, and he hopes to challenge Conor Murray sooner rather than later.

"It's great to come back after being away for so long. Being close to my family and all that is obviously a massive plus," says Hart.

"Then on the rugby side it is a massive culture change. I never got to experience playing at a very high level at home because I left so early. I am getting adapted to that now.

"It was a bit of a shock at the start but I am enjoying it. It's tough going but that's the nature of it. It's just a bit of a reality check.

"I just need to keep working now and hopefully play more towards the second half of the season."

Hart played for Grenoble and Racing 92 in France and he never felt overawed in a different country because he is half-French.

His mother Patricia is from France and much of Hart's youth was spent in the country, where he grew to love soccer and idolise the likes of Zinedine Zidane.

Even after he began life in the rugby nursery at Belvedere College, Hart attempted to juggle soccer and rugby up until Junior Cert, when the egg-shaped ball took precedence.

"We didn't have successful years when I was in Junior Cup and Senior Cup. There were previous years that were very good. But there was no one really that came out of my year or the year ahead of me in school," says Hart.

"We didn't have a great cup team and got knocked out twice in the first round by Blackrock. It was unlucky to draw them in the first round each year.

"I was a decent schools player, but I wasn't anything great. It was out of school where I matured a bit and started to understand the game a bit more."

From there Hart went on to represent Leinster up to U-20 level while he also honed his skills at Clontarf.

The versatile youngster could play in both half-back positions and played alongside some great players at Clontarf.

British & Irish Lions tighthead prop Tadhg Furlong, Leinster second-row Mick Kearney and the likes of Matt and Adrian D'Arcy, Collie O'Shea, Mick McGrath and Des Merry all plied their trade at Castle Avenue at that stage.

But Hart wasn't at the club for long and the move to France began to pick up pace once he was informed that Leinster didn't have a place for him in their sub-academy.

"I had an ambition to give it a go. I am half French and had the language. I spent a year there in transition year in Toulouse. I liked the way things were. I knew the culture of French people and it was easy to adapt," says Hart.

"It wasn't something that frightened me. I got the opportunity to go over young. I was ambitious and wasn't afraid of giving it a go. I left at 19. It's quite young to go. It was tough at the start but worked out.

"It was such a good learning curve for me. I didn't really know the area of Grenoble. I had never heard about the city and it was all new to me. At times it was fun and at times it was tough.

"You are relying on one thing and that's rugby. I made great friends who I am still in contact with. The people through the club really looked after me. I am really grateful to those people."

Hart had a couple of years in the Grenoble academy before he grew into a superb scrum-half under the tutelage of two other Irish recruits, coaches Bernard Jackman and Mike Prendergast.

After his five-year stint with Grenoble, Hart headed for the bright lights of Paris, and he made his Racing 92 debut alongside All Black great Dan Carter.

"It was ambitious again. It was a big club and they had some massive names. You want to go because you test yourself with these lads. I had played against them and knew what they were about," he recalls.

"The two experiences I had in France were great. I have learned a lot from them. At Racing there is a special bond there between the players. They won the Top14 the year before I arrived.

"They have a special group of lads there and a great team. It's just a great place to be. It was a tough season off the pitch with all of things that went on.

"But in terms of learning and seeing what the best players in the world do day in, day out, that was a massive learning curve for me too."

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