The Rouen Normandie players alighted from the coach in Biarritz 10 hours and 45 minutes after setting out that morning at 9am to fulfil their final fixture of the season in French ProD2. There is a 7pm curfew in France so the squad went directly from a seat on the bus to their hotel rooms ahead of the following day's game.
The only time they stepped outside the rugby regimen was a brief stroll the following morning. Masks are compulsory outdoors in France, so taking in fresh air was relative. The game kicked off at 6.30pm, Rouen lost, boarded the bus at 9.30pm; wrinkled and sleep deprived they arrived back in Normandy at 7.45am the following morning.
Shane O’Leary laughed: “I still have PTSD just thinking about that trip.”
The 28-year-old Cork-born Canadian international – he qualifies through his mother Delia – who previously wore the jerseys of Young Munster, Grenoble, Connacht, Ealing Trailfinders and Nottingham, joined Rouen in the summer of 2020 and has just completed a 30-match season played out in the midst of a Coronavirus pandemic.
For those professional rugby players who ply their trade in the sub strata of the elite leagues in England and France, some contracts at the lower end of the scale wouldn't cover a basic cost of living. The job description may be uniform but the disparity in salary and ancillary benefits is stark.
What’s being sold is a punt, the prospect of being snapped up to play in the English Premiership and the French Top 14. There is a substantial enough throughput in personnel terms for the progression to seem attainable.
It is possible to make a comfortable living but in the second tier professional leagues, for the small minority that just about break through a six-figure salary threshold, there are others willing to play a 30-game season on a £6,000 contract. It’s not all about the money but being able to save a few quid while experiencing a different culture and lifestyle is hardly looking for the keys to the kingdom.
O'Leary is perfectly placed to offer an insight into the life of a rugby troubadour, having first gone to France as a teenager on an academy contract at Grenoble, returning at the behest of Pat Lam to play for Connacht – he came on in the 2016 Pro14 final victory over Leinster – followed by three seasons in the English Championship before hooking up with Rouen.
A phone call to fellow Young Munster man Mike Prendergast, part of Bernard Jackman's coaching team at Grenoble, secured a trial for the 19-year-old O'Leary. He signed an academy contract.
I was chomping at the bit to get an opportunity
“They were very good to me. I had a brilliant support network in terms of players and wives/partners,” O’Leary explained: “I was basically adopted, had about five dads and mums who looked after me.
“I spent my time being fed in other people’s houses. It made it much easier to settle because I was in that caring environment and I could just concentrate on my rugby. I wasn’t in the greatest place financially, a pretty small academy contract but I was chomping at the bit to get an opportunity.
“I was 19 and didn’t really care too much about the money. I didn’t have a car, lived by the stadium and just wanted to play. I went skiing and took other trips, made friends and enjoyed the social side of things. Every morning looking out my bedroom window I could see the Alps.”
Grenoble looked after his accommodation and food but the contract would have been similar to an Irish academy one at the time, worth about €4,000.
“Back then money didn’t really matter as much; as long as I had enough [to live] I just wanted the rugby opportunity. It’s still a value I hold quite highly. I was probably a bit raw and oblivious to the world.”
He loved his time in Galway but with opportunities limited he accepted an offer to go to Ealing before an ankle injury foreshortened the season and with contractual ‘to-ing and fro-ing’ he agreed to move to Nottingham.
His financial requirements changed as he got older but the chance to draw down a decent salary in the England’s second tier was modest, when compared to the French ProD2.
He explained: “Some lads, thankfully not me, would have been on £6,000 to play 30 games of professional rugby a year. There was a lad in one of the [my] clubs who was on so little money – his parents didn’t want to support him playing rugby because they wanted him to concentrate on his education – [that] one of the coaches took him to do [and pay for] his [food] shopping.
“I wasn’t on massive money but I was able to pay my rent and go shopping, live an okay lifestyle. Some lads are on very little. There are a couple of boys in Ealing who would be on close to 100k, others on around the 40k and some on less. In my last club Nottingham [some of the higher earners] would have been on £30,000.
“It was a good adventure. I really enjoyed myself there, a class club full of great people. It had a bit of an AIL feel to it,” he said pointing out that the standard was below Pro14 but above A interpros.
Coming to the ProD2 I have a bit more money in my pocket every month
“They had been in the league so long but were never in the same financial place as Ealing or the team that came down from the Prem [English Premiership].
"Lads do get picked up [ by Premiership clubs] and it [the Championship] is definitely seen as a ladder. A lot of the Championship clubs are part-time now [because of the English RFU cuts in funding] so some have part-time work outside rugby. If you are smart enough you can save a bit but you are not saving thousands of pounds a month. You might be able to save a bit here and there. I'm not driving a Lamborghini.
“Coming to the ProD2 I have a bit more money in my pocket every month. It’s been a step up financially. The salary caps are a lot higher in the ProD2 than the Championship. I’ve heard of players who are on €20,000 a month and others who are on €1,500–€2,000 a month. You never find internationals playing in the Championship but you do in the ProD2. There is way more money here.”
Accommodation and cars are often part of the contract packages in France and the superior financial clout can be attributed to several factors, one of which is lucrative television rights. O’Leary said: “Every ProD2 match is on television. A lot of them are on Canal Plus or their streaming service Rugby Plus. My parents watched me play every match.
“In the Championship they might have come to watch me play two or three games. That TV money is split between the clubs. In France the cities and the government back the clubs financially. In Rouen they get €500,000 from the mayor of the town and the local sports council. That figure alone is above what Nottingham’s budget would be for the entire club, not just playing staff.”
Off the pitch O’Leary’s experiences have been hugely positive, albeit different in terms of travel but not the social life. In Nottingham there was a sizable Irish contingent, eight in his first year – he shared with three – and seven the second year when he got an apartment with his girlfriend, who accompanied him to Rouen.
The attendances at matches in Nottingham would have been around 1,000 to 2,500-3,000 for a big game against a Bristol, London Irish or Ealing, so it’s therefore not a surprise that the rugby players were rarely recognised in a city with two football teams. He explained that it would be a different case in somewhere like Bedford where the rugby team is the focal point of the community.
Travel to matches was straightforward unlike in France.
"We normally bus to Paris which is two hours away and then take the train everywhere but we did travel by coach on a handful of occasions. Vannes, five hours by bus, that's our closest game, the local derby.
"We drove to Angouleme [six hours] and Aurillac [nine hours]; we were higher up the mountains at one point on that bus trip than we were when we stayed in a Chateau in Chamonix on a ski trip."
I will definitely be playing professional rugby [somewhere] in 12 months time
The rugby in ProD2 is more physical and attritional with a greater emphasis on the kicking game and, when briefly permitted during the pandemic, played in front of passionate, raucous crowds.
O'Leary explained: "Vannes and Nevers attract large support for home games, about 12,000 people.
“In Rouen crowds range from 3,500 to 5,000 and next year we are playing in the football stadium where they average about 6,000 supporters.”
What was it like without crowds?
“Like a training session atmosphere with match intensity. For one game one of the non playing squad brought a bodhrán with them. It was unreal, it made me homesick.”
His next assignment will be adding to the 14 caps he has for Canada with Test matches against Wales at the Principality Stadium and England at Twickenham in July. And this time next year?
“I am still keen to play for a few more years and get to a World Cup with Canada with a more prominent role. More immediately to go well for Rouen; if they want to keep me around, if I want to stay around (we’ll see) but I will definitely be playing professional rugby [somewhere] in 12 months time.”