Antoine Frisch making steady progress towards his goal of playing for Ireland: ‘From the very start, that was the dream’

Munster centre has amassed considerable experience in France and England and makes no bones about his lifelong rugby ambition

French-born and reared, the bilingual Antoine Frisch is an easy-going and chatty interviewee with a nomadic story which, above all, demonstrates how mustard keen he has always been to become a professional rugby player and to play for Ireland.

For as long as he can remember, almost since first playing mini rugby at age four or five in the local Rugby Sud 77 club in Fontainebleau, a suburb in the outskirts of Paris, it’s been Frisch’s dream.

“From the very start, that was the dream, I think. I have no idea why. It’s just, as soon as I had my first training session and then watching on TV, Six Nations, World Cups, it’s your dream to play international rugby.”

And that’s why he’s here. Refreshingly, Frisch makes no bones about it. One of his prime reasons in turning down the opportunity to extend his stay with Bristol Bears beyond a year and instead relocate to Munster was to fulfil his ambition to play for Ireland.

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His move to Munster has lived up to his expectations, helped by plenty of game time and that URC title in his first campaign with the province.

“It’s been brilliant, I’ve really loved it – still loving it now.”

Early into the interview, Simon Zebo taps on the door and apologises as he opens a cupboard to get some plastic bottles of water. Frisch and Zebo chat briefly in French, as they apparently do more often than not, before the interview resumes.

While Zebo has been on winning and losing Racing 92 sides in Toulon’s Stade Feliz Mayol, Frisch has also sampled the atmosphere at one of the true hotbeds of French club rugby when with Stade Francais seven seasons ago.

“I was the 24th man when I was at Stade Francais in a Top 14 game. I warmed up with the team, but I didn’t play the game. I remember it being really electric and quite a hostile environment.”

Frisch readily admits that Munster have given themselves very little elbow room after letting slip winning positions against both Bayonne and Exeter in advance of what he simply describes as a “huge” game.

“This is like the first of two cup games, aren’t they? That’s the way we’re approaching it.”

The 27-year-old has adapted to his new surrounds easily.

“It’s quite a chilled lifestyle and it suits me well. I’m really enjoying living here. I’ve got my cousins in Dublin I see every once in a while. I’ve got family coming over, my girlfriend comes over as well. I’m lucky to be in a group that is so tight. Everyone is really welcoming.”

His maternal Irish grandmother, Mary, is 95 and lives in Devon.

“I tried to go to see her after the Exeter game but I wasn’t able to. She was in hospital so I’m going to get over there in March with all the cousins and my brothers and see her.”

Frisch was reared by his London-born mother, Kim, and his French dad, Sebastian, in Fontainebleau. He says it’s always been Ireland, even more than France, or indeed England, thanks in large part to his mother, who was born in England but considers herself proud to be Irish.

“Her mum is from Dublin and that’s where the influence is and all her cousins are still in Tallaght.”

They are the Healys and have regularly attended Munster home games. His mum was an English teacher in French universities while his dad worked in business management. Frisch studied in the Anglo/French section of the Lycée International Francois-ler school, taking classes in both languages and completing his A levels and GCSEs in English.

He has an older brother, Xavier, who lives just outside London, in Guilford, and a younger brother Matthew, who is studying in Berlin. While there was no rugby, per se, in the family tree, before his older brother tried the game until forced to stop due to a bad injury, Frisch went on to play for the Paris Universite club and spent three years in the rugby academy at Massy. He then briefly studied international business in Loughborough University before accepting the chance to join Stade Francais as an ambitious, 20-year-old outhalf.

“It didn’t go to plan,” he admits, and from there he spent a year at a time first with Tarbes in Fédérale 1, then Massy (also in Fédérale 1), Rouen in the ProD2 and then Bristol in the Premiership.

“I was just looking for opportunities. It was a bit of a crazy pathway but now I’m at Munster so it’s all good.”

One of his team-mates at Tarbes was an English lock, James Percival, who had played in the Premiership with Northampton, Harlequins, and Worcester, as well as Grenoble in the Top 14, and was in his last season before retiring and becoming an agent.

“He actually got me all these opportunities, in Rouen, in Bristol, it’s because of him. At Rouen he called Richard Hill, told him to sign me for one year. He called Pat [Lam] as well.

“If it hadn’t been for him I would have struggled. I would have maybe got a Top 14 opportunity eventually but he’s the one that really went out of his way to contact these coaches that he knew and to give me an opportunity to have a go. So, he was massive.

“Bristol were looking for an extra centre and they just took a chance on me. I improved so much under Pat [Lam] as well. It took me a bit of time to gain his trust but I was still improving every week, same as the clubs before that, just being in such a professional environment.”

Although a big strong man, Frisch plays with a certain instinctive Gallic flair, has good feet and an inventive passing and offloading game. He plays for all the world like a natural-born centre rather than a one-time outhalf. Yet he admits that the biggest change, and challenge, to his new surrounds in Munster has been on the pitch.

“The style of rugby, the detail, the work-rate that’s required to play here is nothing that I’ve known before. It was like: ‘Okay this is the standard so I need to really focus on that and get up to speed’. But the lads and the coaching staff have been incredible to put in time with me and have the patience to explain what is required and then giving you the confidence to go out there and do it.”

He believes it is making him a better player and that this is a continuing process.

Compared to French club rugby, his season at Bristol Bears with Pat Lam was more of a shock and readied him for Munster.

“There was a lot of detail at Bristol. I like the detail and I discovered that with Pat Lam. He’s very big on staying in the system. I guess I think we’ve got a bit more freedom here to express yourself and play what you see. It’s a different style of rugby; tight shapes, instead of more expansive with Bristol Bears. So it was quite a transition.”

Perhaps attending an international school, being bilingual and having such a diverse background has prepared him for his chosen career, but in any event he seems quite adept at adapting to a new place.

“Yeah, it wasn’t by choice but it’s what I had to do and I look back on all the great experiences, as a person and as a rugby player, that I’ve had; seeing all these different styles of rugby from, playing at Rouen with Richard Hill – very old school territorial rugby – and then Pat Lam, and then Munster. They’ve been really good experiences from a rugby point of view.”

Added into all of these experiences was the Emerging Ireland tour last season, in which Frisch played in all three games, so he’s clearly on Andy Farrell’s radar.

“I learned a lot, seeing the standard at international level with coaches of that calibre. It was incredible and we won three games as well. It was a great experience.”

His focus is on Munster but he’ll be one of many looking out for next week’s announcement of Ireland’s Six Nations squad.

“Yeah, absolutely yeah. That’s why I came here. That’s still on my mind but we’ll see. That was the dream, now it’s the goal.”

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Gerry Thornley

Gerry Thornley

Gerry Thornley is Rugby Correspondent of The Irish Times