James Coughlan just one of many Irish players to seek success abroad

Upwards of 60 Irish players in English and French leagues

The IRFU have succeeded where their Welsh, Scottish and Italian counterparts have largely failed in keeping all their front-line players at home. Even Johnny Sexton is returning after his two-year sabbatical next summer, so it is perhaps a further compliment to the system here and the provincial academies that, a little remarkably, upwards of 60 or so Irish players are playing abroad in England and France.

Admittedly, the greatest numbers can be found in the second tier of the English club game, the Championship, where there are 26 Irish players and counting, given a further handful or two are on trial with clubs there. The financial rewards would not be considerable.

Similarly, in a further change over recent times, nine Irish players are plying their trade with clubs in the French equivalent, the ProD2, while there are 19 Irish players in the English Premiership and five in the Top 14. The Union have had less success in fostering indigenous coaching talent, but it is still surprising to note that a dozen Irish coaches/management personnel are also working full-time in English and French club rugby.

These include Bernard Jackman and Mike Prendergast with Grenoble, Eddie O'Sullivan and Jeremy Davidson with Biarritz and Aurillac, and the three amigos from their London Irish and Ireland days together, Conor O'Shea, Mark McCall and David Humphreys, who are now rivals in making up one quarter of the Premiership's Directors of Rugby at Harlequins, Saracens and Gloucester.


As a player with one eye on a coaching career, James Coughlan points out that by sheer dint of numbers, given there are only five professionally coached teams in Ireland, he was better served moving to France and learning their language, culture and rugby, bearing in mind they have 30 professional clubs. So it was that he decamped to Pau in the Pyrénées-Atlantiques.

Nonetheless, it was a big move for the 33-year-old Coughlan, his wife Katri and their three children _ Finn (eight), Aobhinn (five) and Elsie (five months), although it was helped by the petroleum giant, Total, having their headquarters in Pau as this in turn means the city has an international school.

Big change

“We were lucky and that made the decision a bit easier with the kids,” said Coughlan. “We didn’t have to put them into a French school and say ‘right, off you go kids’. It’s a big change for Finn, less so for Aobhinn, so this made it as easy as it could be.”

“But we both kind of said ‘if we don’t go now, we’ll never go’. That was part of it and just the different lifestyle. The first few months are always difficult getting organised, but we’re almost there now.”

The chance to join Pau came after Simon Mannix was offered the position of head coach and asked Coughlan if he would be interested in making the move. Given Coughlan had another year remaining on the two-year contract he had asked for, Munster, to their credit, couldn't have been more obliging

"They were very understanding and accommodating, so I was very grateful to Garrett (Fitzgerald) and Axel (Foley) because if they hadn't said 'okay' I wouldn't have been able to do it. My agent, Niall Woods, also had a big part to play in it."

Coughlan has signed a two-year deal with the option of a third. “I know I’m going to be here for two years and then we’ll see how the body is, and where we go from there. It’s a lovely city. It’s 40 minutes from the mountains and so in the winter we’ll be able to go ski-ing, and at the moment it’s 32 degrees, so then in the summer we’re about an hour from Biarritz and the beaches in the south-east. So it’s a great location, and a beautiful little town, so we’re delighted to be honest.”

On the pitch as well, things couldn’t be going much better so far. Pau, who have missed out on a return to the Top 14 in the last three seasons through defeats in the play-off finals (twice) and last season the play-off semi-final, have won their first four matches to assume early leadership of the ProD2. They are strong favourites to beat Dax at home today before the first of the week breaks every sixth week.

With Damien Traille returning to his hometown club, Pau are clearly determined to end their nine-year stay in the ProD2. "And that was one of the major factors, to be honest, in the decision. I spoke to Simon and Pierre (Bouisset) the president, and having been so close for so long they felt they just needed a couple of fellas who'd been there and done it, kind of thing, and who had been to semi-finals and finals and knew how to win them.

Cork contingent

“They’ve embraced what Simon has wanted to do, and with

Eddie Corcoran

(video analyst) coming over as well there’s a bit of a Cork contingent here as well. I’d say we’re possibly the only team in the ProD2 using GPS units, and Eddie’s video analysis is top-notch as well. And if you want to play in the Top 14 you have to be able to do all those things.”

Coughlan has been an ever present and in his first week came across Eoghan Hickey, the former Leinster, London Irish and Wasps outhalf now playing fullback for newly promoted Massy, where Pau won 14-12 with George Clancy the referee. "I told him that in ten years as a Munster player he never refereed me once. Then he turned up there. At least it made for a soft landing."

In week two, Pau beat Jeremy Davidson’s Aurillac, with Ulsterman Conor Gaston on the wing, by 41-3, and although a broken finger had sidelined Coughlan’s former Munster team-mate for their 26-21 win over Agen, they met for coffee. Last week Pau won 23-22 in Beziers.

As to whether more Irish players might make a similar trek to the ProD2, Coughlan says: “My own personal opinion is that it doesn’t matter whether it’s ProD2 or Top 14 or whatever, as long you’re happy with the rugby that you’re playing regardless of where you are.”

“We’ve five weeks on and then a week off, then another five weeks on and then two weeks off for Christmas. For a fella like me, with a young family, it’s great. Gone are the days when I’m away on a Thursday and not back home until Sunday. It’s an individual thing.

“If fellas can make more money by moving here, then they will go, and that’s the anger for the Union. Growing up, young players from Munster want to play for Munster but then at some point you might want to see what the other side of the fence is like as well.”

More errors

Most of the players at Pau, and at other leading ProD2 clubs, would be good enough to earn professional contracts in Ireland, says Coughlan, but “there are more errors, and that’s why so many games are tight.

“However, the standard of rugby players is as high as at home. I have no doubt that pretty much everybody with Pau would definitely be capable of having a contract with the provinces. It’s always going to be harder for the smaller town teams, but we’ve a good group of home grown fellas as well as fellas like myself. Overall I’ve been impressed.”

Gerry Thornley

Gerry Thornley

Gerry Thornley is Rugby Correspondent of The Irish Times