Saturday 18 November 2017

Davidson eager to move back into the limelight after prospering in the middle of nowhere

Jeremy Davidson in action for Ireland in Australia in 1999 Photo: Matt Browne/SPORTSFILE
Jeremy Davidson in action for Ireland in Australia in 1999 Photo: Matt Browne/SPORTSFILE
David Kelly

David Kelly

He lives not just in the middle of nowhere, but 600 feet above the middle of nowhere, where the summer nights are just as bitterly cold as those of winter.

The area in which his house nestles was once a hub of volcanic activity; it's now long dormant.

Aurillac's Irish coach Jeremy Davidson (centre) celebrates a victory over Mont-de-Marsan last season with Thierry Peuchlestrade (right) Photo: THIERRY ZOCCOLAN/AFP/Getty Images
Aurillac's Irish coach Jeremy Davidson (centre) celebrates a victory over Mont-de-Marsan last season with Thierry Peuchlestrade (right) Photo: THIERRY ZOCCOLAN/AFP/Getty Images

The ancient eruptions have enriched the soil: a pastoral, green setting. This is Aurillac. In the middle of nowhere. And this is where Jeremy Davidson lives. Right in the middle of it.

Long becalmed himself, if ever the man voted best player of the 1997 Lions series could ever be guilty of tending to eruption, despite a premature, injury-enforced retirement at just 27.

Now he is 42 years old, as he sighs when you remind him of the approaching 20th anniversary of that famous tour.

"I was just talking to my wife last night about how people cope with life after rugby," he says, speaking just days after the suicide of Wallaby Dan Vickerman, like the Dungannon man, a second-row.

"God, I'm old. Twenty years. My goodness. A long time ago. I see the likes of Joost van der Westhuizen gone. That's what I think of now. Axel. Jonah. Dan last week. It's crazy.

"I was happy with what I achieved. Maybe I'm different, I took what I could get. I look at Ciaran Scally, who had the rugby world at his feet but had to retire at 19.

"I took it on the chin and moved on. There's no point in looking backwards. If one avenue closes, hopefully another one will open."

His door is always open but hard to find, unless you want to find it. Then again, Aurillac, where he coaches a French Division Two side consistently punching above its weight, is mostly out of sight. So he is out of mind.

Which is not hard, given its position; no TGV serves its station and it is the least accessible major town in France by road. Plenty of reasons to leave, few to arrive.

Davidson has had stints with Castres and watched as his former partner, Mark McCall, went on to dominate England and Europe with Saracens.

He remains only vaguely linked with Irish gigs, but perhaps an accent which had less Tyrone and more Taranaki might cut it more back at home. Just as well he is in no rush.

"It would be great," he says in another week where Irish coaches have been ignored.

"It's not that long since I've been at Ulster. If you go back to a club, you have to come back a new person, a fresh person with new ideas and different outlooks, to show you've developed.

"It's very important for coaches to go away somewhere else. Every day is a school day, no matter what position you have. You learn on your feet, players endlessly ask questions and you endlessly are looking for solutions to get a competitive advantage.

"I would like to get home eventually but I'm in no real rush either. My attitude is that when I eventually return home it will be a day that counts and every day after it will be a day that counts, because I've learned so such since I've been away.

"Most coaches' downfall is trying to get somewhere too quickly as opposed to taking their time and going when the time is right. I've been lucky to find my feet here, achieved some success and it has given me a great grounding.

"Whenever the time is right, it will be right. I could move on now but maybe better to move on when somebody wants me!"

What is for him won't go by him; Jono Gibbes left Clermont for Ulster; Clermont immediately re-awakened the interest they had had in 2013 before Gibbes joined them from Leinster. They would have to fork out some wedge to Aurillac as an exit clause expired last month, but they have the money.

"I've had a wee bit of interest, I don't know if it will go any further, that is between the clubs and my president," says Davidson.

"It is flattering whenever you get phone calls asking you to go to the next level. I'd like to get back up there.

"I've been here six years now and each year we have punched above our weight. So it would be nice to get the chance to step up and add value to a big club.

"The problem is how long can you take a small club with a small budget, with the gap getting bigger every year, how long can you sustain it even in this second division?

"I'm not quite sure myself what the answer to that question is. I'll keep working as hard as I can do it for as long as I need to."

Aurillac could have joined the big boys last summer but lost the play-off final to Bayonne, a side with three times their playing budget of just €4.5m.

Forget Leicester City or Connacht, this would have been a true sporting miracle.

"Wouldn't it have been great? We had ambitious recruitment lined up and I would have been confident we could have punched above our weight," says Davidson.

"Traditionally, this is not where the young up and coming French players would come. It was once the 'African' province, there were 17 South African players here at one stage.

"Cheap labour and they were used to conditions like this. So when I arrived it was very difficult to get young players. Cold, no money. The middle of nowhere.

"It's changed now. We don't have players beating down our doors, but we're at least a more acceptable option for young guys to develop.

"I would have relished the chance - you dream of taking a team with the 14th lowest budget up to face the giants of teams with €30m and more."

It might have been a quick return; like Mont de Marsan who won just once a few seasons back.

Or, it may have been an adventure like that of Oyonnax, who scaled the even headier heights of Champions Cup rugby.

Davidson may never know, not here at least. This season has been a difficult hangover; they can't buy a win away from home but they are still in the promotion shake-up alongside fallen giants Perpignan and Biarritz.

"This league is so competitive, it is so difficult to win away from home especially with the squad we have," he explains.

"It is very young - we have lost seven players, six of whom were really experienced squad players.

"So we have to let these guys grow and not expect too much and we have had injuries also.

"We haven't been able to play at our highest level yet. Having said that, we have the easier teams at home towards the end of the season and we have a couple of opportunities away from home to try and get back up the league.

"It's not a massive failure to be where we are because we are always punching above our weight. It's transitional and we have a high average of Academy players ahead of a new rule that is coming into French rugby soon."

Like the surrounding dormant mountains, Davidson has long been at peace, particularly with the manner in which a knee injury sadly curtailed the playing career of one of this country's most gifted and athletic forwards.

If he is bitter about not receiving the acclaim he should for his coaching achievements in his home country, he doesn't exude it, content in his temporary exile, even if, one day, longing for a return.

"I'll keep working away as hard as I can here for as long as it takes," he muses. "I'm happy with my lot.

"It's a very nice position to be in when you think about it all."

Whether he stays or leaves his house upon the hill, his life will still change this summer.

He has already two sons from a previous relationship; in June, his wife is expecting a baby.

"Old?" he smiles. "That will make me feel young again."

Irish Independent

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