Sport Rugby

Wednesday 17 January 2018

Respect not caps top of Coughlan's priority list

Munster No 8's omission from Ireland squad looks like an oversight, writes Brendan Fanning

Munster's James Coughlan runs with the ball
Munster's James Coughlan runs with the ball
Brendan Fanning

Brendan Fanning

In the old days when you wanted to interview a rugby player, you got his number and rang him up.

He said yes -- thinking it would advance his career, and anyway it was nice to be in the papers -- and you met at a convenient location for a yap that might run to an hour. Then you went home; transcribed the tape; wrote and filed the piece; and moved on to the next subject. If this was a train service through the season then it chugged along, largely on time and with no shunts or sidetracks.

The current set-up is a bit different. In a professional game with a massive media demand, the PR person is the conduit for interview requests. These sessions, when and if they materialise, are mostly grouped affairs, and short. Frequently, you don't get the interviewee you want either.

This week in Munster, for example, the herd gathered around the name of second row Dave Foley. Perhaps the management were minding this tender fledgling of 25 years and five seasons as a pro, but the request was knocked back. To cut a long story short, we were offered James Coughlan. Eh, he's not exactly the story this week, is he?

Well, actually, he is. Coughlan is fundamental to Munster's current position as league leaders in the Pro12 with 10 wins from 12 starts, and four from five in Pool 6 of the Heineken Cup where this afternoon against Edinburgh they are chasing a home draw in the quarter-finals. Moreover, his omission from the Ireland Six Nations squad has gone largely unnoticed, which is wrong.

Let's look at the second bit first. James Coughlan, then 32, was on nobody's bolter list for the Lions last summer because he had never featured in an Ireland shirt before that. Like a lot of rugby supporters Declan Kidney evidently didn't think he had the oomph to make an impact at Test level. That would be fine if he hadn't been invited to the outer reaches of the Ireland squad, close enough to feel the heat radiating from the inner core. And then cut loose.

Last season for example he was added to the Six Nations squad and seemed to be on course for a bench spot against Scotland only to be pipped by Iain Henderson. Never mind. Summer was coming, and under a new regime, and the Lions would take a chunk of players out of the Ireland tour to North America. Still he didn't make it. Then came November, and this time he was included first time, not as an add-on. Coughlan was one of three uncapped players in the 34 man squad. By the time Aaron Cruden closed the show, in the Third Test, the Munster number eight was the last man standing -- on the outside.

When the Six Nations squad for next month was announced last week, Coughlan wasn't in it. Worse, Munster's latest recruit for next season, Cardiff No 8 Robin Copeland, was.

"We've had this conversation before," Coughlan says, in dread of what's coming. Yes we have, but he has been knocked back three times since then, so you'd have to wonder if that is steam coming out of his ears or is he in a fog of confusion.

When Munster played Leinster earlier this season, Coughlan reckoned -- incorrectly -- that he was the only uncapped player in either starting team (Duncan Williams is still in those ranks while Dave Kearney's coronation hadn't taken place by then) but it tells you something of his mindset. Rather than complain however he lavishes praise on Jamie Heaslip who is Ireland's undisputed first-choice No 8. But that's not the point. Rather it is simply this: how bloody painful is it that such a good player could not have ticked the box marked 'international experience' in an era when Test matches are a minimum 10 in a calendar year?

Coughlan quotes NHL coach Mike Babcott of the Detroit Red Wings on the subject of putting your hand out for busses that don't stop.

"He says: 'Frustration is a waste of time -- you find a way to make it work,'" Coughlan declares. "That's life, if it is meant to happen it will happen and if it doesn't there are far bigger complaints in the world than not having a cap. I think I have the respect of my colleagues, the respect of my coaches and the respect of my family at home. That is what is important."

When he mentioned the bit about 'far bigger complaints' it struck a chord, for outside of rugby Coughlan puts in some time raising the profile of the Mayfield Suicide Action Group. The northside Cork suburb where he grew up has more than its fair share of social issues. Suicide tops the list. Seven years ago in the Munster squad his friend Conrad O'Sullivan was lost the same way. They had played all the way up through Munster schools and Irish schools together, and on to UCC.

"Depression is something that affects us all silently," Coughlan says. "We all have our own blue days, or whatever it is, but some have it a hell of a lot worse than the normal kind of feeling sorry for myself. It's just trying to make people aware. I think I read something that says: 'Death is final, Depression isn't'. If you go that way, if you go down that road where you can't get out of bed for weeks and weeks and weeks, it's just trying to make people aware that there are people there to pick up the phone and call, or can take you for a cup of tea or a pint or whatever it is.

"Maybe I'm just trying to make people aware that death isn't an answer. It's final and that's it -- you can't change it. But there are plenty of ways of changing your state of mind, so it's just trying to find a way that people can express themselves and not be afraid to put their hand up and say: 'Look, I've a problem'. That's the major thing because in Ireland men especially aren't the best at expressing how they're feeling. And it's killing more people than road deaths so it's something that people need to be aware of and people need to quite readily put their hand up and say they're depressed and have nobody saying: 'Get over yourself, you're grand'."

As a society are we not moving more towards seeing a mechanic when the car breaks down, and a mental health professional when your head starts to splutter?

"I think the stigma has definitely gone away from saying: 'I need to go away now and see someone about this'," he says. "I suppose without saying exclusively it's a class issue, that may be the case in middle-class Ireland. But lack of knowledge and lack of education are factors when it comes to seeking help.

"I'm not trying to generalise the working class because I'm a working-class man myself. My parents are working class. It's not that, it's that we need to be able to say, regardless of where you're from or what your circumstances are, you need to be able to say it. To be honest with you, the help that's there is expensive. If you want to go see somebody it could be €100 a go. That's not covered on a medical card. So it's something that we really need to look at from a financial standpoint because people just don't have the money to go and seek professional help. Especially in this day and age. There's 400,000 people on the dole like. That's not depressing enough -- not to have the money to go out and get the help that's needed? It's something that fellas like myself are trying to get out and create awareness of."

On his blue days then Coughlan has a lot to be thankful for: he is a valued member of a group making their way in the rugby world, coming out from the shadow of their illustrious predecessors; soon his family will be extended to five; and between his ongoing PE degree, and the experience gained working on the fitness side with Glen Rovers last season, he has a bright future. The experience in his old GAA club reminded him too of the luxury of being a pro.

"It's amazing to see these guys, their dedication," he says. "I suppose I did it for long enough with Dolphin. It's the same kind of deal: you're getting out of the car; you're eating your sandwich; you've been at work and you're going training for two hours. They're ringing me asking me if they can do more conditioning, more strength. You know, you take your hat off to them. They are doing it solely for the love of the club. It is something very Irish as well -- you play for the love of the parish and that's what it's about. I'll miss it this year but I'll go to as many of the games as I can and keep a toe in it. I made a lot of good friendships out of it."

Right now his closest buddies are in a Munster squad that has one of the key ingredients sorted in their mix for success: defence. Already they are in the top quarter in the competition for defending tries and overall points conceded. If they had goal kicking in the same bracket then they would be even harder to overcome. They aren't weighed down with game-breakers but their organisation and growing confidence will make them unattractive opponents to anyone in the last eight. And Coughlan can't wait to get to that stage.

"It's funny I was watching Rog's documentary and he said the highs are high and the lows last so much longer," he says. "So it's amazing how quickly you move on. The next thing up is Edinburgh at the weekend. This constant strain, you know, watching the baseball players and the NHL players, they can have a string of eight games where they haven't won but there's 160 games to get over it. It is a constant cycle and you don't get caught up in it. Frustration is a waste of time -- you just find a way to make it up. That's the kind of attitude I take to it."

We'll get around to Dave Foley another day.

Irish Independent

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