Rugby’s wild geese: the ups and downs of a life lived in exile
We speak to three players who departed Irish shores for the benefit of their careers
James Coughlan after Munster were beaten by Toulon in the 2014 Heineken Cup semi-final. Photograph: Billy Stickland/Inpho
James Coughlan, 36
Joined Pau from Munster and retires at the end of the season to work in Pau’s academy. He speaks about life off the pitch.
In 2014, Simon Mannix had been made aware by Munster that he wasn’t going to be kept on as backs coach and had agreed to take over as head coach in Pau. He told me there would be a place for me. We’d had our third child that April. It wasn’t just about me, it was about giving my family an opportunity.
I had never lived away from home so it was a chance for me to put myself outside a comfort zone and see what life was like outside of Cork and Munster. When I arrived to training in Pau it was like the first day at school: “Hey lads, will you be my friend?”
I never saw it as a move away for a couple of years, make a bit of cash and go home. I didn’t want to be an expat living an expat’s life. I wanted to be able to walk down the road, sit down with a coffee and read the newspaper. Learning French was a big thing for me. I put a lot of effort into it.
The French lads appreciate that you are making the effort. You go for coffee with the French boys and they stop trying to translate, they just leave you there and say “right sink or swim”. It’s good. You need it. At the start, by the time you have the first conversation translated in your head they have moved onto the third one.
Initially when I came over the plan was to play for two years and if I got another year at the end of it, then that would be fine
If you are going to live in another country, the least you can do is learn the language and not expect to be spoon-fed all the time. It opens up life outside of rugby. You are able to go and do things without being stuck in your circle. It was important for me and I am only speaking from my own experience.
We had a manager here, Marie, who literally took me by the hand and said, “we are going to open a bank account tomorrow, do your car insurance the day after, your house insurance the day after that and so on.” I’m sure every club will have a Marie who’ll take the foreign players by the hand and lead them through the red tape.
Two days after we arrived my eldest son Finn (now 10) shattered his knee, running into patio doors that he thought were open. I panicked, thought he was after ripping an artery. There was blood everywhere; it was just one of those horrible situations. You’re thinking, we don’t speak any French.
We went over to the doc, he sent us to the hospital. There was a separate accident and emergency department for the kids. Within an hour he had been seen by the orthopaedic surgeon, a plastic surgeon, the head of paediatrics and had got two scans, an x-ray and was back up being stitched up.
It happened about 2pm and we were back home by 4.0; Finn received stitches. Every day for two weeks a nurse came to the house to change the dressing.
The kids go to an international school. I am two minutes from work and the stadium and it’s five minutes into the centre of town. It’s perfect for a guy in my situation family-wise. We are an hour away from Biarritz or skiing in the mountains.
Everything shuts from 12pm until 2pm, everyone goes for their lunch, a three-course meal in a local restaurant. You get three courses for €12 and all the restaurants are rammed.
At home, during lunchtime, you see so many people doing chores, heading to the bank or post office, get the bits and bobs done. Nothing stays open late here. I think they have it the right way around, it just takes a bit of time to get used to it. We work so we can enjoy our life, rather than work being life. There is no such thing as having a sandwich in front of your computer.
The body was telling me to stop. There are a couple of guys who were born in 1999 starting to play. I am too old to be hanging around with guys who were born in ’99, even ’97. I was driving cars at that stage and doing other stuff. I don’t want to be reminded of that every day.
Initially when I came over the plan was to play for two years and if I got another year at the end of it, then that would be fine. Playing all the time, I’m in the squad every week, which has been great. I don’t want to finish on a whimper. I’m looking forward to taking up the new role with the academy.
Michael Noone, 27
Former underage Irish international played for Doncaster Knights, Leicester Tigers and Jersey in England before returning home to study. He now plays with Clontarf.
I was in the Leinster sub academy and had played for Leinster and Ireland at underage levels. The day before I was due to go the Under-20 World Cup in Japan, I broke my leg while holding a tackle bag in Leinster training.
Jamie Heaslip, Seán O’Brien, Dominic Ryan and Rhys Ruddock were in the Leinster set-up, and after playing for a year with Blackrock in the AIL and at 21 years of age I jumped at an offer to play for Doncaster Knights in the English Championship.
I had to consider whether I wanted to be seventh or eighth in line and not get game time or go abroad and try and get something. I played there for a year. It was an experience, takes you out of your comfort zone. Living and going to school in south Dublin is different to the north of England.
The Championship is about giving yourself a year or two to try and get something else. It’s not the end of the line. I signed for Rotherham but didn’t gel with the coaches and by mutual consent parted company.
I needed to go off for a year and see if I liked this game at the professional level
Leicester Tigers director of rugby Richard Cockerill asked me to come up and play an A game for the club after which I was offered a one-year contract and shortly afterwards a further year’s extension. I loved every minute of it.
At that time there were a lot of very good backrows, Thomas Waldrom, Tom Croft, Julian Salvi, guys that developed my playing ability. But I felt I needed more game time. Cockers would bring a few extra players to each game and I was always among them. I was almost a professional trainer.
I spoke to Cockers. There was a contract on the table for another two years. I thought I can do this for another two or three years, take five, seven or eight games a year because I love playing professional rugby. But ultimately I wanted to play week-in, week-out.
I needed to go off for a year and see if I liked this game at the professional level. I ended moving to Jersey, who were in the early development stages in Championship terms. It was a beautiful place to play.
I was then faced with an extremely hard decision of whether I would go back to play in the Premiership or ProD2 in France. There were a few good offers around. I was 25/26 at that stage but had aspirations in business and finance.
I wanted to align those with getting in some study to finish off my business and finance degree, which I am doing at the moment in the National College of Ireland.
I didn’t want to be a journeyman, more clubs than Tiger Woods. Professional rugby is amazing at a certain level, it can be financially rewarding. Premiership salaries were quite good. An average salary is between £40,000 and £80,000; it’s a very good salary but when it stops, it stops.
There are a lot of transferable skills within rugby but you do need to nail down your degree and get some experiences before or during the rugby experience. If you’re at the level of Jamie Heaslip or Seán O’Brien you can afford to buy yourself that window of time when you retire.
I was looking at five, 10, 15 years down the line and trying to work out what I wanted to achieve and what would be the best way to do that. It was an extremely tough decision.
It wasn’t injury-enforced or personal circumstances. I had to be honest about whether I could make enough money to allow myself to play professional rugby. I couldn’t take the risk of coming out at 31 or 32 years of age; it scared the living daylights out of me at Leicester seeing guys who didn’t have any proper retirement provision or planning.
There was an option to come back to Ireland. To play for Clontarf was probably the easiest decision. I didn’t think I was going to play rugby, I thought I would finish at Jersey, but Clontarf have given me so much, particularly support structures around rugby, and I love playing here.
Guys need to play rugby week-in, week-out to develop. If they’re not where they want to be at 17 or 18, it’s not the end of the line. There is a bubble within Ireland that if you don’t make that Ireland Under-20s team you can never make it. And there is a line of thinking amongst some, that if they do make it, they have made it.
I have had a few offers to go back playing professional rugby. I would never rule it out. In my short-term focus, it’s not in there.
Peter Lydon, 24
Went from Seapoint to Stade Francais, played three years with London Scottish in the English Championship and has just signed a two-year contract to move to Ealing Trailfinders for next season.
Stade Francais let me know reasonably early that they were not in a position to keep me on. They had two internationals at 10 and a few options at 15.
My agent Niall Woods put me in contact with Conor O’Shea[Harlequins director of rugby at the time] and I had a long chat with him in Dublin. Stade had played Harlequins in the quarter-final of the Amlin Challenge Cup and he had seen me play in that. I played 15, my first professional game at fullback.
He thought I had a career at 12 rather than 10 or 15 where I had been playing. He told me that Harlequins had an arrangement with London Scottish and that he’d recommend me to them and keep an eye on my progress.
I would like if possible to get back and play for one of the provinces and the dream is to play international rugby
I never got to play centre that season, playing mostly fullback and a little at outhalf. Conor kept in touch but because I hadn’t played centre he wasn’t in a position to offer me a contract because they didn’t need a fullback or outhalf.
The thing about the Championship is that you have such a disparity in wages. A lot of the guys will be living at home or are students living off student loans. There is a lot of difference between the top and bottom earners. My time at Stade gave me a bit of currency and I wasn’t in the lower pay grades.
I’m very happy in London, earning a good wage. There are guys at the other end of the spectrum who are working incredibly hard and involved in a fully professional set-up but not really paid well because of the lack of funding for the Championship.
In my second and third years at Scottish I shared a two-bed in Putney with James Stephenson but with the lease up now I’ll move in with my girlfriend.
Many of the clubs in the Championship have tie-ups with Premiership outfits. London Scottish have access to players from Worcester, Bath, Saracens and London Irish. There are weeks we’d get in about five of them and they’d go straight into the first team. There are also weeks when we don’t have access to them if there are A league matches. It is a funny old league. You get strange results.
Our lowest home crowd would be about 1,200 but I have travelled to grounds where there aren’t more than 700 people present. Cornish Pirates, where rugby is a focal point for the community, would attract about 3,500 spectators.
I have signed for Ealing for next season. They are one of the richest clubs in the Championship with an owner who owns the Trailfinders travel agency.
I would like if possible to get back and play for one of the provinces and the dream is to play international rugby. My two-year contract with Ealing comes with a break clause that allows me to leave if a higher-level team comes in after the first year.
I’d happily go back to France. Ireland would be the dream but you have to be realistic; all I can concentrate on is to keep playing as well as I can.