Paula Fitzpatrick will note some familiar faces in the blue of France when she lines up for the anthems ahead of the Women's Six Nations Championship game at the Stade Aimé Giral in Perpignan.
A commitment, in the company of fellow Irish international Heather O'Brien, to play a season with Toulouse began last September and will recommence in March when the Six Nations tournament is over. Four of their team-mates at Toulouse are in the French squad.
The Irish women are two of four foreigners at the club; Canadian Latoya Blackwood and Rebecca Kearney, half Swedish, half Australian, as Fitzpatrick explains, is the other. Toulouse are part of a Women's Super Eight tournament and it is not professional.
Accommodation is paid for but Fitzpatrick and O’Brien run their respective businesses from France. “There is no contract. It’s not professional or anything. We get the opportunity to put training above work over there,” said Fitzpatrick. “I run a sports science business called Strivesport Science, so I am an exercise physiologist. We test athletes and run research projects for companies that might have sports-based products like a sports drink or a GPS device. Heather runs a physiotherapy clinic in Mallow, so somebody has taken over her practice.”
The Super Eight in France runs until May and the two Irish women haven't made a decision on what they'll do next season. Fitzpatrick is enjoying her time in Toulouse; her team is coached by former French international secondrow David Gerard, and received some orientation advice about rugby in France as well as lifestyle issues from Trevor Brennan.
Keeping the ball alive
The French rugby public likes continuity in matches so there is an emphasis on keeping the ball alive. Fitzpatrick elaborated: “Rucks are a big no-no. One of the first things we were told when we went over there, by Trevor Brennan actually, was that if you are being pushed into touch just throw the ball and somebody will be there.
“The last thing they want is a breakdown in play. A lot of players [IN IRELAND)]wouldn’t have taken up the sport until they got to college, whereas [IN FRANCE)]they are playing since they were six years old so their skill levels are very high.
“It’s a very high standard. The skill is the key thing. They don’t focus so much on game management and strategy. It is more about expression and very French in that it is about playing with passion more than anything else. You kind of play as you feel.”
The Irish Women’s team has never won in France – they have come agonisingly close – and that is a big motivation for this young team. Fitzpatrick will be easily identifiable on the pitch sporting a very distinctive face mask to protect a broken nose sustained prior to Christmas.
She wore it against Wales in victory last Saturday at Donnybrook and it didn’t compromise her game. It’s that type of commitment that will be a valued asset come Friday night.