Trevor Brennan: passing the baton to the next generation
With his son playing for France Under-20s, the former Irish international’s story goes on
Trevor Brennan in action for Toulouse in the Heineken European Cup Semi-Final in 2003. Photograph: Billy Stickland/Inpho
Twenty years ago, the legendary French international Claude Spanghero and his good friend Alain Mondon were chatting in a bar after attending an international in Paris. They decided to set up an association, consisting mostly of former internationals, to travel the world to attend French matches and raise money for worthy rugby charities. They came up with the apt name of Rugby du Monde.
To that end they have indeed been all over the rugby world, and this weekend Rugby du Monde will bring a party of about 80 people to Dublin for Sunday’s Guinness Six Nations match. While here, they will also present a cheque to the IRFU Charitable Trust, at Brennan’s suggestion.
Their president for the last two years is Trevor Brennan.
Yes indeed: the 13-times capped former Leinster and Toulouse lock-cum-flanker is truly Ireland’s honorary Frenchman now.
Six years ago, Brennan and his wife, Paula, even became dual nationals, in large part for their three boys. They all play rugby, and, while Danny has already been part of France’s Under-20 World Cup-winning squad last summer, his 17-year-old brother Josh has just been named in the French Under-18 squad.
When the Brennans first decamped to Toulouse in 2002, Danny was 3½ and Josh was only seven months.
“To be honest it was a two-year plan, and six months into the contract they offered me a three-year extension. It was like winning the lotto,” says Brennan.
“That gave me the incentive to think, ‘what could I do in France after rugby that would make me stay here?’ Working in bars and restaurants in Leixlip growing up, that seemed like the best option.”
In 2004 he decided to buy a bar called Tommy’s Bar from Patrick Soula, hooker in Toulouse’s inaugural European Cup win of 1996.
“Friends said I was mad. ‘You don’t even speak the language.’ ‘You know nothing about running a business.’ But it was a risk I was willing to take. I worked in bars so I had an idea how to run them. I took on staff who were bilingual.”
He also made it sports-themed, gave the menu an Irish slant, named it De Danu, and it became something of an institution, regularly frequented by Toulouse players and fans, as well as supporters of the Irish provinces when they were in the vicinity.
“In 2007 Bobby was born as well, so it was a funny kind of a year. I got suspended and had a kid,” he said in reference to the lifetime ban, reduced to five years on appeal, which he received for punching an Ulster fan during a Heineken Cup game, and the birth of his third son, Bobby Valentine.
Although he will always have huge regrets about the endgame, he reflects with fondness on his career.
“It’s very simple. I had six great years at Leinster. I loved playing for Leinster. When I got my first selection for Leinster Under-18s, the dream was to one day play senior for Leinster.
Brennan, who won an AIL with St Mary’s and a Celtic League with Leinster, made his Ireland debut against South Africa on the tour of 1998, and would go on to win 13 caps over the next 3½ years, before he decided to relocate to Toulouse.
“It wasn’t that I gave up on Leinster, it was more like Leinster gave up on me, if that makes sense. They’d still be the first team I’d support, unless they were playing Toulouse.
“Leinster gave me my first chance and I’ll always be grateful for that, but then Toulouse gave me a second chance that I never expected.”
Brennan last played for Ireland in the 35-8 win over Samoa in November 2001 (which was also Warren Gatland’s last game before he was moved on by the IRFU), despite playing some of his best rugby in the ensuing five years with Toulouse.
“Toulouse was tough at the start, not having a word of the language. But I went on to play in three European Cup finals, won two of them, played in two French Championship finals and two French semi-finals. They were great years for myself, but also for the club.”
As for the enforced ending, he still says: “If I had broken my back it probably would have been easier than the way it ended. I still felt I had another two years and I had a two-year deal with Racing in Paris on the table, but in the last year with Toulouse I got knocked out three times.”
“In one game against Castres I was out cold for nine minutes. I think it was a blessing in disguise. I think someone up there was looking over me. You look at all the injuries, cracked vertebrae, broken ankle, dislocated shoulder, broken ribs and then in the last year being knocked out three times, I think it was someone saying: ‘Listen, your time is up. You came into rugby with a bang and you’re going to go out with a bang.’”
It left a sour taste, though, particularly setting the suspension against the eight-month ban meted out to Eric Cantona for his kung-fu kick on a Crystal Palace fan in 1995.
“If you think about it, I had a ticket for the Ireland-England game in Croke Park in 2007 but I was brought up to a French Federation committee in Paris before the France-Wales game, and they considered what I’d done was worth a three-week suspension.”
“After my appeal, the IRB (now World Rugby) reduced the life ban to five years. What I did was wrong, but it didn’t deserve the suspension that I received.”
For two years he didn’t attend or watch a game of rugby on television. “I couldn’t even be around rugby people, because they were always asking questions.” He preferred to watch his sons play.
While trips home to Ireland remained a regular occurrence, the boys had started to become, well, French. “It would have been tough to come home,” says Brennan, who also became a co-owner of a bar called Le Cantina with a good friend and former team-mate, William Servat, for five years.
He then bought a bar-brasserie in his home village of Castel-Ginesté – which he likens to Leixlip in relation to Dublin – called Brennan’s Bar in October 2013.
“It’s kind of brought the village to life; before, it was just a little brasserie, typical of French bars and cafes, which opened at nine in the morning and closed at six in the evening.”
“I saw the potential to do a proper bar, which shut at 1am or 2am, but we also do lunches and dinners. It was a great success, and that’s why I put De Danu up for sale, to save me running from one bar to the other.”
Whether as a player or retired, Brennan has always had a restless energy. He bought another bar beside the Airbus plant in a village called Seilh, across the road from a hotel with two golf courses and a swimming pool.
That is frequented by a mix of English and French speakers, whereas Brennan’s Bar is exclusively the latter save for rugby weekends. There will be a party of 60 from Corinthians Under-14s for a couple of under-age games who’ve rented the upstairs section for Sunday’s match.
His boys’ rugby careers also revived his own love of the sport, and he’s enjoyed the Toulouse revival which is now infusing les bleus. He expects Ireland to win, but warns: “France have got their mojo back and that makes them dangerous, and they’ve nothing to lose. For years France have been over-coached but this team will have a go from anywhere, and if they keep Ireland out for the first 20 then it’s game on.”
Brennan has followed Danny’s progress as a prop with Toulouse and with French under-16 and 18 teams, then spending three weeks in
South Africa supporting the Under-19s.
The Brennans were also in southeast France in force last summer for France’s Under-20 pool wins over Ireland, Georgia and South Africa, the semi-final over New Zealand in Perpignan and the final over England in Béziers.
“They were playing in front of 16,000 and 18,000 full stadiums, singing la Marseillaise. You couldn’t be more proud. My father and brothers were there, and my father was crying during la Marseillaise.”
After that, Danny decided to take up a three-year contract with Montpellier.
“I felt he was in the comfort zone in Toulouse. He’d come home and his dinners were made, his washing was done, he didn’t know the value of a euro, what an electricity bill or water bill was, who paid the bins.”
“I said to him, ‘Listen, you’ve done everything you can do in Toulouse for now. I’d like you to go away and get an education in life.’ There were a lot of offers on the table. There was Munster, Clermont, Castres, but Vern Cotter knew everything about Daniel, his weaknesses and strengths.”
Unfortunately for Daniel, Montpellier are suffering a hangover after losing last June’s French championship final to Castres, and he’s been restricted to two senior games. He is still only 20, young for a prop.
“He’s a big unit,” says his dad. “When he played in the World Cup he was 140 kilos and six-foot-three. Since joining Montpellier he’s lost 12 kilos. They want mobile props, who can carry and link with the backs.”
Josh is a lock and is more of a chip off the old block.
“I think he should have been born 20 years ago,” says his dad, laughing. “He plays old-school rugby like me. If I was playing today I’d only play two matches a year. He loves being physical, He loves hitting rucks, being in the mauls. I was six-foot-four and my playing weight was 108 kilos; he’s already 110 kilos and he’s six-foot-six.
“He’s a carbon copy of me, but better. I’d be the first to say it. He can pass the ball. He’s brilliant in the air and he’s mobile. Not to say I was the worst player in the world, but it would be like me coming up through Barnhall compared to Brian O’Driscoll coming through Blackrock College. Josh has been in Stade Toulousain for the last seven years. Josh would be a more skilful, intelligent secondrow.”
At 16, Josh signed a three-year contract with the Toulouse espoirs and he has been picked in the French Under-18 squad for upcoming friendlies against Wales and England, before the Under-18 Six Nations Festival, when France’s opening game on April 13th is against Ireland in Gloucester.
Their desire to represent France is understandable – although they’ve never lost their Irish roots, as was evident in Daniel’s post-match interview after France won the Under-20 World Cup.
“You’d swear Daniel had been dragged out of the Liberties with his Dublin accent,” says Brennan, whereas Josh has a Limerick accent from family summer holidays on Peter Clohessy’s farm. “It’s the funniest thing ever. Whatever it is about him, from those younger years he picked up a Limerick accent. It’s nuts.”
Having set up home and business there, and with the boys having come through the Toulouse ranks, the family have long since been accepted as French. “I haven’t played in 12 years, but everything that has happened since then has been incredible,” says Brennan. “So much has happened in a positive sense.” The remarkable Brennan story is far from over yet.