Friday 22 March 2019

The madness of Les Bleus: Eight Irishmen on what it's like to play in France - and against them

France dejected during defeat to England
France dejected during defeat to England
Brendan Fanning

Brendan Fanning

THIS afternoon in Lansdowne Road, Ireland play France for the 98th time.

In those 110 years of competition the relationship has lurched from where Ireland got off to a decent start to one where wins were hard to come by, to where the period from the mid-1970s to the turn of the century was of virtually unremitting grief for Ireland.

Paris became a negative result for the away side before a ball had been kicked. More recently we have come to look on the French as opponents who beat themselves before we can do it for them.

At club level the trend has been mirrored. Irish players going to work in France bring with them an ethic and discipline that their hosts might find worthy but are uninterested in embracing. The one constant is that if the French could find the right balance between culture and circumstance they would rule the world. Brendan Fanning talks to Irishmen who have played against, or in, France, and are still trying to work it out.

Terry Kennedy (64)

(Ireland, 1978-81)

I absolutely loved playing against them. Back in those days it never entered your head — ‘will we be able to hold these guys?’ — it just wasn’t something we thought of. I loved to run and they were always on for that so they were great games to play in. And we learned from them.

Jean-Michel Aguirre was full-back for them at the time and he was a class act. And Jean-Pierre Rives was a master craftsman. We should have beaten them in Parc des Princes in 1980 but got beaten by a point with Jean-Francois Gourdon scoring two tries. The previous season in Lansdowne Road we drew 9-9 and definitely should have won that. I think Wardy [Tony Ward] had a drop-goal blocked in front of the posts. It was a free-kick so Colin Patterson tapped and passed it to him. Maybe if Wardy tapped it himself he would have had more time. It was a pity because wins over them were hard to come by.

I was lucky to play a few other games in France as well, places like Perpignan and La Rochelle, and I loved the place. They were great experiences and I couldn’t get enough of it.

Steven McMahon (23)

(Carcassonne, 2016-present)

I’m definitely happy with the way things are working out. As I talk to you now I’m sitting by the pool at our house on a lovely, sunny French spring day. My girlfriend is over here now and we’re expecting our first child soon so things are going well. But I have a long way to go to make the development I’m after on the rugby field.

It’s only two years since I found out I was being let go by the Munster Academy and I’ve just signed on for another two years here, so I couldn’t imagine this at the time.

Yeah things are different and there’s a bit of chalk and cheese, and the French are in a parallel universe, but it’s mostly the one per cent stuff I find different to the Irish game. Things like slapping the ball down in training — which you’d never do at home. Stuff you’d take for granted in the Munster Academy but they would never do.

But some things are actually better than in Ireland. The level of physicality in ProD2 is massive. That said, some collisions are missed altogether, but they’re very big when they’re on target.

I had zero French when I came over here. Literally, I was learning ‘Bonjour’ a couple of days before arriving. At first I was in a little apartment on my own in the centre of town and it wasn’t great. Believe it or not I’d never gone out to eat on my own and suddenly I’m plopped in a foreign country where I didn’t speak the language.

I was really, really nervous going to training at first but everyone has a little English and there are a good few anglophones in the squad.

My French is better now and I took an exam in the summer and did well. I’d say I’m at Leaving Cert higher standard now. But you get the names of moves, etc quickly enough. The running lines are the same — they just have different names — but the intensity back home was much higher.

Ken O’Connell (50)

(Castres, 1997-98)

I spent a year in Castres not long after the game went pro . . . long story how I ended up there but Jeremy Davidson came too and we had a wonderful time and made great friends. The rugby was great but it was a real challenge for me. Alain Gaillard was the coach and he’d always be saying: ‘Allez jouez, allez jouez!’ Basically he meant hurry things up. He wanted quick hands and fast link play, and that wasn’t really me. I played in tight, forward-dominated games against the likes of Narbonne or Toulon — the real heavy stuff. But against Stade Francais or Toulouse I mightn’t get in.

I could take the ball up no problem, and I’d die for the cause, but I didn’t have that flair they wanted. They let me go because of that. But there were no hard feelings. None at all. I won the life but I didn’t win the rugby.

It’s a working-class game down there. I loved mixing with the supporters after the matches. Having a pastis and a bit of crack, a bit of food. I excelled with them, but the social stuff with the players took a bit of getting used to. At the start, myself and Jez [Davidson] would have a few beers on the table and the others would have a bottle of wine between eight of them! It’d be all: ‘Doucement, doucement (slowly)’.

They’d be sucking egg cups of beers, but you just had to go with that. In one of the better games there we beat Bourgoin away. This is it we thought: ‘Man, we’re gonna fill this bus!’ And the next thing it was ‘mange, mange’ and we had to eat. ‘You joking me? We’ve just beaten Bourgoin like? Let’s get on it!’ So the bus stops and we go for something to eat, and it went on for hours and hours and hours. But that’s the way it is. So you get on with it.

But it was a marvellous time. I played with great players like Frano Botica — a true professional and a lovely bloke — and Thomas Castaignede was a lovely fella as well.

And I speak the language now. I won that bit of it as well. I even taught PE in a school there. I’d been doing my degree in sports science and history in St Mary’s College in Twickenham when I was at London Irish. Then I taught a bit in France to keep it going. A great experience all round.

Kevin Maggs (44)

(Ireland, 1997-2005)

I played against France eight times and managed three wins, so that wasn’t too bad. And I was lucky enough to be part of a team that won in Paris for the first time in 28 years, and changed the relationship a bit between Ireland and France.

We had been really unlucky to lose over there in 1998. Warren Gatland had just come in and everyone was saying we’d be beaten by 80 points. We were very physical and got off the line really well and should have won. Paul Wallace had a try disallowed that was a try all day. When we went back over there two years later we’d had another close loss to them in Lansdowne Road when we’d had a kick to win it.

The thing with the French was you never knew if they were going to be ‘jouez, jouez’ and running from everywhere or not be able to string a few passes together. Even if they started one way it could turn around completely in the second half, so you’d be fearful I suppose of what they might produce, but you’d always go out with good intentions.

It was an amazing experience to be part of the win over there in 2000. Everyone remembers it as Brian O’Driscoll’s coming of age and it was a great game to play in. We’d been working hard as a team and we were a long way from the disastrous run of results that other Irish teams had before us.

I had a few offers at one stage to go over there, Castres and Biarritz were interested, but nothing concrete came of it. Playing for Ireland was the main thing for me and that would have jeopardised it. I wouldn’t mind some of the money they’re offering now, though.

Jamie Hagan (31)

(Béziers, 2016-present)

Manny Edmonds, the former Perpignan player, signed me and it was the middle of the season. Whirlwind stuff. Panic stations. The club had just lost four or five games on the trot and the place was in disarray. The presidents were not talking to the coaches. I say presidents because there are six of them. We played Biarritz at home and got hammered. The presidents came into the changing room one after the other, very official, and were very agitated.

I had Leaving Cert French at the time and was struggling to keep up. ‘This is not looking good for the coaches,’ one of the Kiwi lads said to me. That was a Sunday. I came in the next day for recovery and there were no coaches there. We were told we’d be looking after ourselves for the week and playing the following weekend with no coaches. After that it was the Christmas holidays.

Welcome to France! Funny now but not so funny at the time. I’d been around and seen coaches come and go but never in that fashion. The coaches who came in were well balanced, not typically French and didn’t fly off the handle, and did a good job. We got to the play-offs last season.

The whole ‘winning away from home’ thing here is bizarre. At Leinster we wanted to win every game no matter where it was, but we’ve won away only twice this season, which is a poor return, so adjusting to that mentality has been hard. The bonus point rule means you have to come within five points (rather than seven) so that hasn’t helped. That’s killed us.

The history of this place is amazing. Even still Béziers are the third most successful team in France, winning 11 of 13 Top 14 finals in the 1970s and ’80s. The ground is massive for ProD2; Stade de la Méditerranée has a capacity of 18,000 and we had 10,000 there last week for the win over Mont-de-Marsan. The fans are lunatics and the atmosphere is incredible. They’d be there hours before the game and hours afterwards, drinking beer and wine and having wild parties. The place just erupted when we won. They are unbelievably passionate in this part of the country.

I’d always wanted to try France and the only advice I’d give to young fellas coming over is to take things with a pinch of salt, and go with the flow. I remember Johnny Sexton talking about how difficult it was in Racing and I can understand that. You have to play the game though and try and immerse yourself in the culture. I played well straight away when I came over so that helped — they accepted me. But they’re a different breed. And you can’t change them.

Philip Danaher (53)

(Ireland 1988-95)

I played more Tests against France than any other country — seven in all — and lost every one of them. To be fair it wasn’t a great time to be playing the French. My second cap was in Paris. I was full-back at the time. They had Serge Blanco. By the time I was finishing up I had moved to centre where I was up against Philippe Sella. While Blanco had the step and the gas, Sella was just pure hard, with a lot of skills thrown in. Not easy.

Lots of memories, one of which was of being offered up in Lansdowne Road early in my career. For some reason the more experienced backs decided to paddle their own canoes and defend man-on at a scrum about 60 metres from our posts, on the left-hand side. So our winger stayed out and of course when the French threw a skip-pass Blanco came through the gap like a train.

We were into the wind so I’d stayed deep initially to cover the kick. I think he was already on our 22-metre line by the time I clicked into gear. There I was, this naïve young lad from Adare with little white legs and there was Blanco in full stride. Thanks lads. That was a learning curve.

The games in Parc des Princes were all about the swirling noise, and the bands striking up, and cockerels being thrown in when the home team got on top of us.

Funny thing, I remember being in Stade de France as part of the management group, with Warren Gatland and Donal Lenihan, 10 years after my first cap. We were in the tunnel at half-time as the lads, who were playing really well, were coming off, and the size of the average French fella seemed to have shrunk from our days chasing after them. Remarkable how with full-time training, and testing, some of them — who had been like raging bulls back in the amateur era — had got smaller. Amazing!

Mike Prendergast (41)

(Bourgoin 2006-07; Grenoble/Oyonnax/Stade Francais 2013-present)

I know the thing about French sides not being able to win on the road, but we’re actually very un-French: we’re struggling to perform at home. Stade were 12th last year and 10th the year before so they lost a bit of support, and it’s a struggle to get that back.

So even though we have a fantastic stadium we might only get eight or nine thousand. When I was with Grenoble and Oyonnax we could have 14/15,000 in the gate.

Between playing a couple of seasons in Bourgoin after Munster and then coaching — this is my third club — I’ve had a bit experience of the French way. And I’ve learned that it takes time and patience to fit in. I have my family here, my wife and two kids, and we’re here nearly six years now, and while it’s a great life, it’s not easy.

When I look at the France team I wonder how incredible they’d be if they ever got the right people and got it right. They have the resources, they have the money and they produce phenomenal athletes. Here in our own club Gael Fickou and back-rower Sekou Macalou are unbelievably talented rugby players. I was talking to Paul O’Connell about Macalou the other day and he was saying he’d never seen anyone with his potential: incredibly quick; a hybrid back-rower; great lineout player . . . he can do it all.

But against England, France picked Fickou on the wing. I understand about getting your best players on the park but everyone knows he’s one of the best centres in the country all season. And that’s typical of France.

I get the impression they’re really serious, though, about getting it right for 2023. They have the World Cup later this year first and they could bring a great squad to that but they really want to make an impression at their own World Cup. It’s frightening how good they could be, and they have so many of their under 20s coming through now.

Getting the right people on board will be interesting. Bernard Laporte said recently they’re open to foreigners working with the national side so I could see them bringing in one non-French coach and he could make a big difference.

For myself I don’t have any grand plan. I have one more year here and we’ll see what comes next.

Denis Fogarty (35)

(Aurillac/Agen/Aix-en-Provence 2012-18)

I didn’t realise what I had let myself in for. Jeremy Manning, who had played with Munster, gave me some insight but even so it was a massive adjustment.

When you’re on the ground and dealing with players’ mindsets it’s just a huge change. I was playing in ProD2 and even though Agen had been a Top 14 side their training regime was just completely different. I decided I needed to try and bring them up to the standards I was used to instead of embarrassing myself. I slowly figured how hard it would be. I remember the coach saying to me one day: ‘We are not Munster. We will never be Munster. You will never change us so do your own thing. This is how we do things here.’

I clashed with him a bit. We just weren’t on the same page. He’d ask me things and when I wouldn’t agree he’d get annoyed. Why ask me so? Simple things. I remember talking to Paul Warwick, who played full-back for Munster and he was up in Stade Francais, about how to get standards up. So 10 press-ups when they’d drop a ball in training. No chance. They wouldn’t do seven.

I tried to get that stuff in when I took over the Academy in Aix-en-Provence but it was hugely frustrating knowing how hard I had to work to get small things done, and often them just not doing it.

I think I’m better for the experience, though. Better able to cope with stuff. The six years over there have helped me understand people, and myself, and made me grateful for what we have in the Irish system and why we are ahead of them.

Off the field though, it was great. Both our kids were born there and the cultural experience — the people, the food, the drink — was lovely.

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