Antoine Frisch: ‘People like O’Gara and O’Connell really inspired me to play rugby’

Munster’s new French signing grew up wearing a baggy green jersey alongside his Les Bleus one

New Munster signing Antoine Frisch is spending his final days at his family home in the picturesque district of Fontainebleau, just outside of Paris before moving his life to Limerick. His days are packed in this former seat of French medieval royalty. Alongside the necessary logistics of moving to Ireland, he is committed to studying the essence of Munster rugby. Books on the 1978 victory against the All Blacks will be read, local club rugby history will be studied, and he will talk at length with his mother’s large family, the Healys, who still live in Tallaght.

The physically imposing centre played his rugby last season under Pat Lam at Bristol, before realising a long-held dream to play in Ireland, signing a three-year contract with Munster. Frisch is Irish qualified through his mother, and he grew up wearing a baggy green jersey alongside his French one. Frisch is bilingual and spoke French with his father, and English with his mother. He describes two distinct parts of his life that have meshed to make him the player and person he is today.

“As a kid I was divided watching rugby, all my mates were supporting France, and then my Dad was obviously supporting them too. But then I was always massively proud to be Irish. I would watch Ireland and I remember I would really get emotional watching the games. I immediately felt this strong connection. I think back to the players I loved as a kid, and they were people like O’Gara, Stringer, O’Driscoll, O’Callaghan and O’Connell. They really inspired me to want to play this game.”

In May, Frisch had the opportunity to return to Tallaght, bringing his 93-year-old Irish grandmother Mary who now lives in Devon back home for a big family gathering. Due to the pandemic, and an intense number of years building his rugby career in Rouen, Normandy in ProD2 and then Bristol, Frisch was desperate to get back to Ireland. He sat back in the Thomas Davis GAA club surrounded by his cousins and instantly felt at home. He loved his upbringing in France, but he always knew there was something different about him.

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“Growing up, I never quite felt I was like the other French kids. I think it was really due to my mum bringing me up surrounded by Irish culture. It made even more sense when I went over to Ireland and started meeting all the family, it all just made sense. The reasons why I didn’t feel the same in France or I was maybe just a little different. The main difference I have always found between France and Ireland would be the banter, it was just hard for me to understand the French humour growing up, although it became clearer as I got older. In Ireland I always got the humour a lot more. It just felt more natural.

“When I go back to Tallaght, there’s just this strong feeling in my heart, I can’t explain it. When I see my cousins, it’s always incredible. The next three years at Munster will be massive, both from a rugby perspective, and also to really build that connection with my family. They’re all Leinster fans, but they will be definitely be coming down to the games in Limerick. They were watching my games in Rouen and then Bristol, and they’ve always supported me. When they heard I was signing they were already ringing to see how they could help in any way, they’re very proud that I’ve joined a club like Munster.”

At 26, Frisch is a strong centre who relishes physical contact, but also possesses quick feet and an ability to accurately offload under pressure. His rugby career started in the Parisian suburbs with local clubs Paris Université Club and Massy, before joining the Stade Francais academy. Originally he played as an outhalf and couldn’t break into the Stade first team due to strong competition, before eventually getting a move to Normandy, with Rouen in Pro D2 where he built a strong body of work that alerted Pat Lam at the Bristol Bears. In his single season for Bristol, Frisch impressed Lam and had the opportunity to stay, but the pull of Ireland was too strong.

“They wanted me to stay, but equally, Pat knew where I came from, and what my dreams were to come to Ireland. He fully understood my decision, and he was really happy for me. I am massively grateful to Pat and Conor McPhilips who believed in me when the Top 14 clubs didn’t give me a shot, they helped make all of this possible, and I can’t say enough good things about them.

“The time they put me in with me, to make me a better player and person was incredible, but I know I’m making the choice for the right reasons. They gave me the opportunity, but I felt I didn’t really have a choice when Munster came in. It was a straightforward decision. I could have played for England as I’m also eligible to play internationally for them, but it was never in my mind. I don’t know why, it was never a thing. It had to be Ireland.”

Frisch dreams about one day putting on an Irish jersey, but first, he knows that he has a huge task to secure a place in a competitive Munster midfield. He grew up glued to the television screen when Munster played French opposition in the European Cup and was always moved by the sea of red jerseys that filled foreign stadiums. Frisch completed a tough apprenticeship in local French rugby, and understands the strong link between the club and community in Munster.

“One thing that I know that I am really keen to do when I arrive in Munster is to really get involved with local rugby and look to help out when I can with the young kids playing the game. I remember as a kid the happiness and joy that seeing a professional player down at the club gave me, so I need to do the same now. There’s a big connection between Munster and their fans that goes way beyond what is normal in rugby. In France they would have a reputation as some of the best fans in world rugby, and it’s not hard to see why.”

Alongside his nascent studies on the history of Munster rugby, Frisch has also been speaking to the Healy family at length about the GAA and its importance in the community throughout Ireland. His uncle lives in Limerick, and his cousins in Tallaght are all diehard Dublin fans. He knows all about Limerick’s exploits in hurling in the Liam MacCarthy Cup and is extremely keen to get to a game when he is settled down.

“I’ve been looking into the GAA, but I have to tell you that growing up in Paris, my knowledge of hurling and Gaelic football isn’t great. In Tallaght the younger kids in the family all dream of playing for Dublin in football, so I understand how big the passion is. It’s obviously massive and I’m really looking forward to getting into it. Initially, I was amazed to read that it’s all amateur, given the skill level and crowds, but then I understood that it’s to keep the beauty and soul of the game intact. I love that connection with the clubs and the county I want to fully experience it live. I really want to see Limerick play hurling, that will definitely be one of the first things I want to do when I’m settled.”

Frisch is enjoying the last few days of anonymity and tranquillity in Fontainebleau. He will say goodbye to his family and friends in France, and then rent JJ Hanrahan’s house in Limerick with his girlfriend. Frisch is preparing for a tough preseason that he hopes will eventually leave him primed to run out in front of a packed crowd at Thomond Park. The days of his childhood divided loyalties are long over. He is ready to follow in the footsteps of his childhood heroes and is dreaming that the Healys of Tallaght will be wearing red of Munster in the crowd when he finally does make his debut.