Tuesday 24 April 2018

French leave paying off as day job takes a back seat

Paula Fitzpatrick: ‘Comparing it to the women’s game at home, it’s more skilful because the girls have been playing from a much younger age, so those co-ordination and motor skills are there much earlier’ Photo: Sportsfile
Paula Fitzpatrick: ‘Comparing it to the women’s game at home, it’s more skilful because the girls have been playing from a much younger age, so those co-ordination and motor skills are there much earlier’ Photo: Sportsfile
Paula Fitzpatrick: ‘You’ve seen the mask then? My nose kept breaking in each game’ Photo: Sportsfile
Brendan Fanning

Brendan Fanning

While the rest of us were being lured outdoors last week by the sunshine, and promptly battered by hailstones driven by arctic winds, Paula Fitzpatrick was in the south of France enjoying a different class of springtime.

Warm and sunny, Toulouse in April is not the worst place to be. And if it's where you live and work then better still.

Ireland's back-rower, one of the toughest and most consistent operators in the women's game, is, you could say, living the dream. This doesn't feature a penthouse overlooking the Place du Capitole. And neither does she log on every half-hour to marvel at the figures stacking up in her current account.

Rather accommodation is a fairly basic apartment block, with watery Wi-Fi, elsewhere in the city centre, home mostly to the student population from Toulouse Business School. The comfort level is more functional than flash. As for the bank account, the only incoming traffic is from the sports science company she set up before heading to France last year ­- one she is struggling keep a handle on from her current base. So why bother?

"We can train full-time, and work remotely from over here as well," she says. "Running a business at home meant it was a bit difficult to leave but I have someone running it for me, which is fine, so I was up for the move. And it's good for us to be able to concentrate on our game like this."

The first person plural is because Heather O'Brien, her Ireland back-row team-mate, is also on the French gig. It seems natural at this point to ask if they have an agent.

"An agent . . . ? No! Absolutely not!"

It's not that she wouldn't want one, we suspect, rather Irish rugby women are not yet conditioned to expect one because their game is not at that level. But if you're playing in France's Top 8, where the game is taken far more seriously than in Ireland, and where most of those playing it have been involved since childhood, then it seems reasonable to have someone in your corner. Especially if there's a problem. Like having to shift your plans from Perpignan to Toulouse soon after you'd agreed to move over.

Originally it was a rep from the Catalan club who came to see the girls play Six Nations rugby in Ashbourne. Then it went further south than expected.

"We'd gone over to have a look at the place last summer, but then their problems arose and the club basically folded," she says. "It was a big political row and the girls basically boycotted the club, and they haven't played in the Top 8 this season. We had already arranged with work to come to France, so we had to look around then for another club who were offering the same kind of thing. And Toulouse were."

It's a serious operation run by former Toulouse second-rower David Gerard. Training facilities for the girls are good, adjacent to the excellent set-up at Stade Ernest-Wallon, and once a week they run their lineouts against Toulouse's Crabos, the club's under 18 boys' side.

"It's actually turned out really well despite it being a bit of a change from the original plan," Fitzpatrick says. "As well as gym work we'd have three pitch sessions a week and then a game at the weekend. It's quite a high standard. Comparing it to the women's game at home, it's more skilful simply because the girls have been playing from a much younger age, so those co-ordination and motor skills are there much earlier. You might have it if you were a GAA player, where a lot of those skills are transferable, but a lot of people in Ireland tend to take the game up quite late. I didn't start until first year in DCU. I was playing soccer and hockey and a few other sports and a friend of mine suggested we try it out. I suppose I would have been 18 or 19."

Fitzpatrick's career took off when she went to St Mary's, where she got around the field a bit: second row, out-half, hooker and finally back row. It was as a No 6 that people became more aware of her: the World Cup campaign in France two summers ago, where she was outstanding, especially in the historic win over New Zealand where she literally carried for Ireland.

If you have seen Fitzpatrick lately you might thought she was trying to be all mysterious, given the yoke that covers most of her face on matchdays. It's like something from a Hollywood horror movie. But it does the job: to protect her nose, which was getting in the way of her career.

"Yeah, it's fine," she says. "You've seen the mask then? My nose kept breaking in each game. I broke it over here in December playing for Toulouse - got it fixed and it was all fine. Then it re-broke in training - it was on the day of the six-week (recovery) mark so it should have been fine. Then it broke again in each of the first two games in the Six Nations, so the mask was a kind of protective thing. Hopefully it's ok now."

She describes as "MacGyveresque" the process by which she and a couple of Ireland physios came to mould this thermo plastic guard, padded with foam, which ticked two boxes: functionally protective, and within World Rugby guidelines for what you can and can't wear on the field. "I'll wear it until the end of the season and hopefully it'll recover over the summer. It's been fun!"

When summer is over the chances are that Paula Fitzpatrick, a sports scientist with a PhD in exercise physiology, will be back in Ireland for the foreseeable. Toulouse want her to stay but she needs to put her business on a firmer footing. She set up Strive Sport Science along with Dr Giles Warrington, her lecturer in DCU, who once had an involvement in trying to introduce the concept of professional preparation to the Ireland men's team back in the amateur days.

"We basically do three things," she says. "Athlete testing, so getting them in and doing a needs analysis, and depending on their sport we'd look at their performance levels and how to improve them. We'd also do research for companies that might have a sports product, it might be a sports drink, or a GPS device, or some sort of technology-based thing so we can run tests on that for them. And the third thing is education-based, sessions for maybe corporate groups or clubs. At the moment it's looking like work might have to become the priority again next year but I'm undecided for the moment."

While she is getting all that straight in her head there is the prospect of home and away semi-finals in the Top 8 coming up next month. Women's rugby in France is a bit like the men's operation in that it mobilises the locals. There are decent crowds, and games that feel like there is a lot on the line.

"Anytime there's a derby game you can really get the sense in the club that it's a big deal. The community get right behind the team so you'd definitely know the difference between that and a normal game.

"Being over here has definitely helped my game. Like at training you'd have 60 people every night whereas in Ireland you might struggle in the winter time with numbers. Then doing lineout sessions with the boys is really good, especially for me having moved from originally playing hooker. Also just having the training time without being pulled in different directions with work - that's been a big thing. It's paying off."

And the working conditions aren't too shabby either. She's looking forward to uninterrupted sunshine as her season draws to a close.

It may end in silverware, this year well spent.

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