Irish rugby’s own flight of the wild geese

By John Fallon

A humid Saturday morning and clearly it is moving day in Lourdes. Dozens of buses clog the narrow streets of the town in the Pyrenees, hazard lights on as people are wheeled or carried from their hotels, others moving with a pep in their step as if the visit to the Marian shrine has uplifted them.

It’s hard to spot any miracles on this particular October morning other than the thankful likelihood that nobody seems to have been injured as gigantic buses come within inches of trouble as they negotiate their way past cars, wheelchairs, and pedestrians.

There are 270 hotels in Lourdes, more per square kilometre than anywhere other than Paris in France. That’s some amount for a town of 15,000 people. In comparison, Killarney, which has a similar population, has 75 hotels.

Tens of thousands of people travel to Lourdes every year, the place continues to flourish from the time that schoolgirl Bernadette Soubirous witnessed the apparition in 1858.

The discovery which helps Pau — an aristocratic city of 85,000 inhabitants 40 kilometres away which was the birthplace of King Henry IV — to flourish, is much more tangible.

In 1958, engineer Jean Féger discovered the huge Lacq gas field near Pau, a breakthrough which led to the creation of what is now known as the Total fuel brand.

The discovery has been worth millions of euro to the region. Total employs over 2,800 alone at their headquarters in Pau and it is money from this gigantic petrochemical company which is helping the local rugby team become serious challengers for the Top 14 crown.

Section Paloise, to give the rugby team its correct title, is also the most Irish of all the teams in France. It has gone from having no Irish connection to having the most on its playing and coaching roster, an entirely appropriate development for a club which wears green and white.

Simon Mannix, the Munster backs coach under Rob Penney, is the head coach, while two former Munster performance analysts, Elliot Corcoran and Paddy Sullivan, made the journey with him.

James Coughlan came over initially as a player who helped them get promoted and he is now coaching the academy. Paddy Butler, Sean Dougall, and Dave Foley are all front-liners for Pau and this summer, two promising youngsters from Cork, winger Eoghan Barrett and back five player Ben Roche, joined up after impressive displays for Christian Brothers College.

“I know when I was offered a contract it was partly because Simon knew what I could do from his time with Munster, but it was also down to the fact that the Irish here ahead of me had done so well,” said Foley, who is now in his second season with Pau.

“All of the Irish who have come over, whether as players, coaches, or analysts, have made a big impression.

“But the club has also been very good to us. It is a really family-oriented club. My fiancée has moved over and the club is really family-inclusive, everyone is brought in. They are working on the basis that happy families lead to happy players,” said the 30-year-old.

He’s recovering from a foot infection at the moment but is hoping to build on a big first season when he clocked over 20 games. “I really enjoyed it. I needed a change. I had picked up a few injuries, was frustrated at not getting game-time and felt it was time for a change of scenery.”

Going to work each day in the foothills of the stunning Pyrenees is certainly one way to get a change of scenery and the Clonmel native, who made 84 appearances for Munster, is loving every minute of his new life. He played opening games against Toulon and Bordeaux-Begles and can’t wait to get back on the field for a club which is determined to recapture the glory days.

This part of France has a very proud rugby tradition. Pau have won the French title three times, in 1928, ’46, and ’64, while neighbours Tarbes lifted the Bouclier de Brennus twice, while only four teams have it won it more often than Lourdes, who have eight titles, the last of which came in 1968.

Pau won the European Challenge Cup in 2000 but, having survived a relegation play-off against Aurillac in 2005, were relegated the following season. It took them almost a decade to get back up, with Mannix arriving to guide them with Butler, Dougall, and Coughlan.

“When I came over here there was just a mound on one side of the ground,” said Butler as we looked out at a pitch now surrounded by stands on all four sides. Half of that is a superb two-tier stand with corporate boxes.

“It’s a very ambitious club,” added Butler, who last month chalked up more games for Pau than the 64 he played for Munster.

“We have been in contention in the past two seasons, in the knockout positions with a few games left but then slipped away.

“We are determined to bridge that gap. There is a real buzz in the club, we can see the progress and it’s hugely enjoyable.

“The main reason I came here was to get the opportunity to play and they have given me that.”

He’s now in his fourth season in France and has seen a lot of changes in that time, not just with his club but throughout the country.

“There’s a lot more Irish for a start. It’s brilliant to see them. Not just players but also coaches and then there are more coming out to play Pro D2 as well as Top 14. The lifestyle is good and there are a lot of opportunities.

“I have never regretted the decision for one day, it has been great,” added the Cashel native.

He’s out of contract at the end of the season and with increased restrictions on foreign players, he’s not sure what the future will hold.

“But that’s part-and-parcel of the professional game. I’d love to stay here but we will see how it goes. It’s not to the forefront of things at the moment,” added the 27-year-old.

Foley is also out of contract at the end of the campaign and is also unsure what’s around the corner.

“I would love to finish my career here. I’d love to play for another couple of years but we will see how it goes.”

He’s currently finishing his Commerce degree from NUI Galway and then he wants to turn his attention to getting his pilot’s licence, going the distance to become a fully-fledged commercial pilot. “That’s the plan. I may end up working for Ryanair or Aer Lingus but that’s what I would like to do when I have finished playing.”

His family, like the other Irish at the club, are frequent visitors to the area but while Foley has seen plenty of the country, he’s yet to visit Lourdes.

“My grandparents went there when they came out.

“I must go one day.”

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