Six Nations: Irish rovers seize chance to add new strings to their bow

Six Nations-wining backrow expanding rugby horizons in Toulouse and Cardiff

Ireland’s Paula Fitzpatrick in action against New Zealand in 2014. Photograph: Dan Sheridan/Inpho

Ireland’s Paula Fitzpatrick in action against New Zealand in 2014. Photograph: Dan Sheridan/Inpho

 

There is very little to tell. Ireland won a Grand Slam in 2013, reached a World Cup semi-final in 2014 and recaptured the Six Nations title in 2015.

The latter achievement came under Tom Tierney’s new management and without the trio of inspirational leaders – Fiona Coghlan, Lynne Cantwell and Joy Neville – who had guided them to those dizzy 2013 and 2014 heights.

In short, the past has proved a boon rather than a burden.

“There are no measures for this squad, no limits,” said captain Niamh Briggs on a 3G pitch in Broadwood’s soccer stadium in Scotland, after last March’s 73-3 victory (they needed to win by 27 points to clinch the championship, but the early scent of blood sent them into a try-scoring frenzy).

“We can keep getting better and better.”

In the aftermath of all this, Paula Fitzpatrick and Heather O’Brien – a blindside and number eight in case you were wondering – were recruited by Toulouse.

They accepted the offer to taste life in the south of France, a la Trevor Brennan & Sons before them.

It was taken as a compliment and an information-gathering exercise by everyone sitting on the Irish side of the fence. The entire Ireland backrow are exiles now (Galway’s Claire Molloy adheres to the Hippocratic Oath in Cardiff, not far from budding scrumhalf Larissa Muldoon).

There is obvious value in sending two of Ireland’s senior players to France two seasons out from a World Cup (which is on home soil, between UCD and Belfast).

“Offloads! I’ve already been warned about them!” Fitzpatrick laughed, about her return to Irish training.

They might have all that offloading and keeping the ball alive at all cost attitude drilled out of them in the coming weeks, but this appears to have been embraced as a valuable chance to sleep among the enemy.

“Gill Bourke [Ireland’s hooker] was in Madrid last year doing a bit of playing and coaching,” O’Brien explained. “We were contacted through that. We spoke to a few clubs.

“David Gérard, down in Toulouse, when we spoke to him we liked his approach. Toulouse are a side that has just come up to the top eight and he felt our experience – a lot of the team are just out of under-20s – would blend in well. We liked the idea of not only learning stuff, but being able to offer something to their squad as well.

“That’s why we ended up here. It’s a nice city and the style of rugby is enjoyable to play.”

Fitzpatrick and O’Brien were able to help this newly promoted Toulouse side to fifth in the Top Eight at the midway break in the French club campaign.

“It’s gone really well,” said Fitzpatrick. “I’m enjoying a different culture and getting to grips with the language, which has been a challenge, but I’ve learned a lot about rugby.

“They are so skilful and the average age is about 20!”

This Irish pair, of Tallaght and Mallow stock respectively, are very early 30-somethings. And they have seen a few things on the dusty road to Pau and in defeating the Black Ferns one summer’s day in Marcoussis. O’Brien even burrowed over for a try in that New Zealand victory.

“We bring experience and a bit of game awareness, which only comes with playing at a high level. And ball-carrying and being a nuisance at the breakdown.

“It’s in the same grounds as the men’s training ground. We don’t play in the [Stade Ernest Wallon], but we are just across the road and have access to all the same facilities.

“We are training four nights a week as opposed to maybe two nights at home, so there is more focus on skills, which is brilliant.”

They already had a professional attitude to rugby in Ireland. The difference is they are currently fitting work around rugby rather than the other way around.

“We both have our own businesses that we can run from here, but it was also about getting in the right staff so we could think about going,”O’Brien explained.

“I have my own physio clinic in Mallow. I’m doing some academic writing as well – I’d probably lose my mind if I wasn’t doing something after training. But the south of France for a year isn’t a bad option.”

Fitzpatrick’s business is sports science – her company, Strive, is a testing and research facility linked to Dublin City University. Her correct title is exercise physiologist (when she talks the trick is to listen), and is also penning a number of academic papers while abroad.

Initially recruited to St Mary’s by Pat Crawford as an outhalf (like so many of this team, Fitzpatrick played multiple sports and so possessed a natural footballer’s brain), her debut for Ireland came in that narrow defeat away to France – #OverNightTrainGate – in 2012. By then she was a hooker.

“I made the Leinster squad in 2011 and Dan van Zyl was coaching us. He moved me into the pack.”

A neck injury wiped out the 2012 season, before she was reborn as a blindside. And a bloody abrasive one at that.

Same can be said of O’Brien, who was made pack leader last season.

“If it’s scrum-related, Briggsy doesn’t want to hear about it. I’ve been captain of my club, captain of Munster. I don’t mind the responsibility. When you make a decision, it’s on your head it lies.”

We can only finish this tale of Irish exiles in Toulouse with a nod to Monsieur Brennan.

Day one in this foreign city and the 12 times capped, much- maligned, much-loved son of Barnhall, Bective, St Mary’s RFC, and eventually a two-time European Cup winner with Toulouse had them into his newer bar on the outskirts of town for a feed and some local knowledge.

At the first day of training Fitzpatrick was approached by “a pasty white kid fluent in French, but with the thickest Limerick accent” offering to help them with any problems or answers any questions.

It was the middle Brennan son, Josh.

Limerick twang, how? All those summers visiting Peter “The Claw” Clohessy’s kids, we were informed.

“The older boy [Daniel] is up with the French underage squad, but the young lad [Josh] is in the Toulouse Academy,” said O’Brien.

“Trevor was also saying it is all about keeping the ball alive down here. And that it doesn’t matter about the number on your back, that it doesn’t mean anything in Toulouse, you just play ball.”

Life, careers and a looming World Cup in UCD and Belfast might draw them home next season, but the benefit should be obvious for all to see when they reacclimatise to the green jersey this Spring.

A win-win situation. No limits.

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