Thriving Brennans a testament to model French underage system

Daniel, Josh and Bobby following in the footsteps of their dad – ex-Toulouse star Trevor

When Dan Brennan started in France's opening 2018 Under-20 Six Nations 34-24 win over Ireland in Bordeaux, the day before 'le drop' by Johnny Sexton, among his teammates were prop Georges-Henri Colombe, lock Killian Geraci, backrower Cameron Woki, outhalf Louis Carbonel, the centres Arthur Vincent, and Pierre Louis Barassi – all of whom are in Gabien Galthie's Six Nations squad this year.

Also playing that night were Romain Ntamack, the match-winner with two tries in his 17-point haul, and Demba Bamba, both of whom would be in the French squad but for injury.

The only Irish players from that night now in the senior squad are Ronan Kelleher and the uncapped Tom O’Toole.

Another current member of the French squad, Jean-Baptiste Gros, also played in that campaign, with Brennan captaining the side in the 24-3 victory over Wales in Colwyn Bay which clinched the title.

Barassi, Ntamack, Geraci, Woki, Gross, Bamba and Carbonel also featured, along with Brennan, against Ireland in the opening match at the 2018 Under-20 World Championship in Perpignan the following May. Apart from Caelan Doris, no other Irish player from an admittedly injury-affected squad has progressed to Test level.

Furthermore, it's looking like a golden French generation now. They won a first Under-20 World Cup when beating New Zealand in the semi-final and England in the decider, Brennan coming on for the final quarter in both games, and France retained their crown the following year.

“I think those two World Cup wins opened up doors for all these great players,” says Brennan. “Until then, not many Under-20 players had been getting a look in at clubs, unless they were Dupont, who was the year before, or [Baptiste] Serin, who was the year before that.

“But when the clubs saw the Under-20s were able to beat New Zealand, England and South Africa, I think it made the coaches think ‘why don’t we give these lads a shot?’”

He lists off all the half-backs who are vying for a place in the French squad, and all are under 25. He grew up with Ntamack and also played with Jalibert.

“As an overall ‘10’ Ntamack is the best but as an attacking number 10 Jalibert is so special. He makes other players look good. I remember running lines on him and he’d hit you every time without you even expecting it.”

French rugby always had talent, but now they’re cultivating it, thanks to the nuanced JIFF (Joueurs Issus des Filières de Formation) quota system, which was introduced in 2010. To meet the JIFF criteria a player must have spent at least three seasons in a French club’s academy before they’d turned 21, or had been licensed to play in France for five seasons before the age of 23.

The quotas, along with the punishments, have steadily increased and now Top 14 clubs must have 19 JIFF players in their 35-strong squads, and must select at least 14 in their match-day squads, or face points deductions. France also has 14 top flight clubs, all but two of which provide players for the current 31-man squad, compared to Ireland’s four.

It was back in the summer of 2002 when Trevor Brennan and his wife Paula moved to Toulouse. Their eldest, Daniel, was two-and-a-half and Joshua was barely seven months. Little could have they imagined they would still be in Toulouse almost two decades on. Now Dan and Josh are emulating their dad by playing with Brive and Toulouse.

Trevor played in three successive Heineken Cup finals, winning two of them in 2003 and 2005.

“It was a great team. We also played in two French finals and two semi-finals. I’m so grateful. I always say that Leinster and Ireland gave me my first chance, and Toulouse gave me my second chance.”

When his playing career ended in 2007, as he puts it, “there wasn’t a lot to go back to in Ireland. The kids were learning French, enjoying school and playing sport. It was all they knew. The 13 years since have flown by”.

Reckoning that the city needed “a good Irish bar”, he’d bought the sports-themed De Danu in 2004, which became a landmark. By the time he’d sold De Danu in 2016, he’d bought ‘Brennans’, another Irish bar/restaurant, in their home town of Castelginest, and in 2017 added a second, Brennans Snug, by the airport.

Both bars were closed from March 12th until June 2nd last year, but then did 300/400 covers per day until September, before being closed again. Probably until next May or June.

It’s his 40 staff he feels for.

That's where young rugby players get the best opportunity in Ireland. Let's call a spade a spade

“A lot of them are finding it tough, because they could be living in apartments and we have a 6pm curfew over here.”

He built a gym, to maintain his fitness and his sanity, and has been renovating his bars. Live sport on TV has been another relief. The Toulouse president did invite Brennan and three other past players, Florian Fritz, Grégory Lamboley and Ntamack snr, to the home game against Stade Francais, which Toulouse won 48-24.

“It was like watching the Toulouse of old. But we were saying: ‘imagine the atmosphere if the stadium was full?’ The place would have been going mental.”

Brennan doubts his two sons would have developed as they have had they grown up in Ireland unless they went to private schools.

“That’s where young rugby players get the best opportunity in Ireland. Let’s call a spade a spade,” says Trevor, himself a product of Barnhall and Youths Rugby. “All the coaches in Toulouse all the way down, like Emile Ntamack, Michel Marfaing and Cédric Heymans, are former players.”

Dan’s story

At the age of four, Dan was brought onto the pitch to celebrate Toulouse’s 2003 Heineken Cup final win over Perpignan in Lansdowne Road.

“I have no recollection of that, it was too early, but I have seen the photos.”

He recalls more clearly being taken to Twickenham for the final they lost to Wasps a year later.

“I remember everyone being very sad,” he says, his Kildare accent as strong as ever.

A year later, then six and three, Dan and Josh were not taken to the 2005 final in Murrayfield when they beat Stade Francais.

“Mum said we’d do too much damage on the plane,” Dan admits.

Paula was always the wise one in the family.

By then Dan had played under-six mini rugby from the age of four for a couple of years.

“But then I was kind of sick of it, and in Castelginest no-one really played. So I followed my school mates and did judo and played hockey.”

But when Dan was 10, a mate suggested they play rugby, so he joined Aucamville, about two miles from Castleginest.

“Josh said ‘can I come with you?’ so I said: ‘go on, yeah.’ They were the best memories of my life, playing rugby with all my mates.”

At 14, Dan was picked for a regional selection in national trials. After one game, Philippe Rougé-Thomas, a four-time championship-winning outhalf with Toulouse and capped twice, asked Dan would he consider playing with Toulouse.

“I had a think about it. ‘Am I really bothered?’ But all the lads in the village said ‘give it a go’. So I went back to Toulouse and that was it.”

A tighthead in the mould of John Hayes, Dan is, as his dad says, a big unit - 130kg and 6ft 3in. He spent five years progressing through the age ranks. He’s known Romain Ntmaack since the latter was two and he was three, throwing a ball around while their dads trained with Toulouse.

“I’d love to play again with Romain again one day. It’s such a big club but at the same time it’s such a family club. And if the rugby team is going well and the sun is shining, everybody in the city is happy.”

Dan played all the way through with Ntamack, Peato Mauvaka and Selevasio Tolofua.

What’s the key to producing so many home-grown players?

“I think you start very early doing things that you don’t do anywhere else. They teach you how to do a flick pass, how to fall to the ground and pop the ball back up, how to tackle, how to run lines and they had former players coming in to teach us individual techniques. They have to be part of the Toulouse family.”

Picked for the French Under-16s, Dan tore his hamstring the day before the squad left on tour.

“That was terrible, but I think it made me more pumped to get back into the 17s squad. The next season I played for the French Under-17s, 18s and 19s in the same year.”

It was also the year he was brought to Marcoussis to finish his schooling as part of the national academy. He captained the Under-19s and the Under-20s, but a knee injury in that 2018 World Cup set his career back again.

When Vern Cotter came looking for him he joined Montpellier but injury struck again when he suffered a broken ankle and ruptured his hamstring tendon. “Normally that never happens but it happened to me,” Dan says cheerily. “I was out for 13 months. It was a tough one.”

Last November, Jeremy Davidson, now head coach at Brive, called and he has since signed on for another year.

Watching so many of his contemporaries make such huge strides while injuries have stalled his progression doesn’t make Dan envious.

“It encourages me, but before I can even think of getting on that stage I have to first mark a spot down with my club.”

Josh’s story

Now 19, 6ft 6in and 118kg, Josh is both a lock and more of a chip off the old block. “He has my temperament,” admits Trevor, “but his skill would be closer to Brian O’Driscoll than me! He can do everything with a ball and, again, I think that comes to the best coaching at a young age. He reads the game well, carries well, offloads, good from restarts and in lineouts.”

One day Trevor was called in to the club by the coaches of the crabos (Under-19) side in Toulouse, Emile Ntamack and Michel Marfaing – both former teammates.

“We were walking alongside the pitch on a lovely sunny day as the kids were training away. We stopped and they said: ‘Josh is great, he’s playing well, great potential, but he’s just too fiery. He’d run the length of the pitch to get into a row. Is there any way you could talk to him and tell him to calm down?’”

Brennan looked at the coaches and simply said: “Lads, did you ever f***ing see me play? You’re asking me to tell him to calm down? Sort that one out yourselves.”

They all laughed and left it at that.

Brennan is 6ft 4in and his fighting weight when playing was a mere 108kg. “They must be putting hormones into the meat and the chickens,” he jokes when comparing the size of his boys.

“During the first lockdown, Dan was back from Montpellier for three months, so we had them all here. My shopping bill went from €300 a week to €500-plus.”

His parents had to sign a form permitting Josh to play for the Toulouse espoirs (under-23s). He’s also retained his Kildare accent and his boyhood hero was Brian O’Driscoll.

“I loved watching videos of him, and I still do to this day.”

He captained the espoirs last season, and also captained the French Under-18s when they beat Ireland and England at a Six Nations tournament in Gloucester. He started three of France’s four games in last year’s Six Nations before their game against Ireland in Perpignan was cancelled.

Josh was in line to be captain of the French Under-20s this year so, like many of his age, will miss out on two Under-20 World Cups. He was also one of the Under-20s called in to train with the French senior squad during the autumn, and at least there are regular games with the Toulouse espoirs.

“They’ve really worked on bulking him up,” says his dad. “He was tall and strong, but he needed more muscle mass. They’re not rushing him. They’ve said to me: ‘Trevor, we’d rather have him for 10 years than two years’.”

Having progressed through their underage ranks, Josh says: “The system here is brilliant. I went to a boarding school that was set up by the French Federation from 15 to 18. You train there all week and then play with your club at the weekend.”

He’s been coached by other former teammates of his father, namely Clement Poitrenaud and Jean Bouilhou, and like Dan he cites Sébastien Piqueronies, manager of the World Cup-winning Under-20 sides, for bringing him into the French underage system and for being one of the biggest influences on his career.

He has re-signed with Toulouse for another two years, and played his first Top 14 game away to Bayonne this season.

France will win that one," says Josh. "They are in top form, Ireland have lost a few players

“It was only 15 minutes, but 15 brilliant minutes. I got to play with Max Medard, who played with my dad. They put a lot of trust in their young players, and because you train with the best, it makes you a better player too.”

So what is Dupont like?

“To me he is the best player in the world. In every game he’s just too good. It kinda looks a bit easy for him. He always finds a way to make a great break or make a great pass. He’s a very nice guy too. Nothing big-headed about him. No players in Toulouse are. He wouldn’t talk too much, but he shows you the way.”

Bobby Valentine

Born on Valentine’s Day 2007, so today’s game also marks his 14th birthday. He’s already six feet tall and 100kg.

“Another beast,” says his father. “He’s a tighthead prop but he wants to play ‘8’, which he probably will too.”

Bobby had been playing with the Toulouse under-15s, but with all amateur rugby stopped, he hasn’t played a game since January.

“You feel sorry for these kids, because they’re training for nothing really, although I tell him he’s lucky that he can train.”

Josh believes the youngest brother could be the nest of them all.

“He’s a big unit too, but he’s got the most talent. Yeah, I’d put him at number ‘8’.”

Today’s match

“Ireland should have won that Welsh game,” says Dan. “They’re a clinical team and they know their stuff. This French team are also well coached, but have maybe more individual flair. Jalibert loves attacking the line, and will look to speed the game up, which will make it interesting.”

“France will win that one,” says Josh. “They are in top form, Ireland have lost a few players and that Welsh game looked like a brutal match. But this Six Nations does look like it’s full of surprises.”

I still want Ireland to beat France. You can take the man out of Ireland, but you can't take the Irish out of the man

Their dad tipped France to win the Grand Slam before the tournament started, and says: “France blew the cobwebs off against Italy but I thought Ireland played with incredible heart against Wales. It’s still a very good Irish team but it seems like they have had an awful lot to deal with. But I still want Ireland to beat France. You can take the man out of Ireland, but you can’t take the Irish out of the man.”

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