There haven’t been many players in Munster who have performed as consistently as Coughlan over the last five years. Hence, it’s a disappointment for their supporters — myself included — that he’s leaving for Pau in France’s Pro D2 with new coach Simon Mannix.
What I understand is Coughlan approached Munster with one year left on his contract to establish whether he was in line for a sufficiently rewarding new contract, presumably a new two-year deal. No such guarantee was forthcoming, so he took a decision that essentially looks after his family and his future.
The big difference between Ireland and France is the love for an experienced campaigner in France. At home, there’s the perception that you’re on a downhill graph after 30 which, as so many players have proved, is nonsense.
Coughlan’s is a great story of perseverance, getting knocked back, getting up again — including the sickener of no international cap — don’t tell me he isn’t good enough to play for Ireland, because he is. If I was playing a test match in the morning, would I have some of the younger back rowers or Coughlan? I’d have Coughlan. But I’m biased.
We don’t do superstars in Munster, and ‘Chucken’ was the quintessential Munster player, coming up through the All Ireland League and making it late with Munster. He’s grafted for every quid he’s earned.
And for Simon Mannix it’s a great bit of business. He’s the one having the last laugh heading off to Pau. To be heading into the Pro D2 with a player of the quality of Coughlan is a serious feather in Mannix’s cap. As a ball carrier, James will be very much suited to the French way of playing They kick all restarts long and he’s brilliant in that facet of the game. In a lot of French phase play, they keep the eight back for the opposition’s kicking game, so he’ll prosper in that regard too.
There’s been a lot of talk about his Munster replacement, Robin Copeland, but he is in the unproven category, whereas James has done it. It’s disappointing it has got to this but what an opportunity for Paddy Butler.
When the 33-year-old Corkman goes for one more trip on the merry-go-round, the two backs who have had the greatest influence on my own career step off for the last time.
Brian O’Driscoll’s swan song comes tomorrow evening at the RDS. Jonny Wilkinson timed his exit as exquisitely as he did those raking drop goals, with a European Cup final tour de force.
Thirteen years ago, on the 2001 Lions tour to Australia, I had my eyes brutally opened to the level of work required if I wanted to be considered a consistent goal kicker at test level.
Starting at our pre-tour base at the Pennyhill Park Hotel and through the trek down under, I was given a pillion passenger ride on the methodology and precision of the modern day test goal-kicker from Wilkinson and Neil Jenkins.
Jonny is just so... prepared, I suppose, is the appropriate word. He rose to the level of an automaton, a machine. It’s like putting tokens into a machine on one of those kids’ rides down in Mahon Point Shopping Centre. You put the money in the slot, it works. Jonny put the kicking tee on the ground, it works. Time after time.
People who follow hurling or football appreciate a reliable, postman-always-delivers freetaker, and the value of it. Joe Canning had spurts of it a year or two ago when he was lethal. It’s a skill sports people like and admire, hence the deep public appreciation of Wilkinson and what he has done consistently for so long. When you play the game, you understood the pressure he was under, with the match outcome invariably depending on him every week.
Nine times out of 10, he produced.
Look at his game management this season with Toulon — it was peerless. If I was Stuart Lancaster, I’d have to have him involved in next year’s World Cup. He is that good. His club colleague at Toulon, Steffon Armitage, is named European player of the year, Wilkinson is probably player of the decade, and neither may be involved in England’s World Cup plans. Odd.
The more English out-halves you’ve seen come and go, the greater you understand the quality of Wilkinson — Hodgson, Cipriani, Flood, Goode. Where they cracked, Jonny excelled. The impact that has had on him, no one knows. What mental and physical scars he takes with him into retirement? He is such an obsessive individual, he often drives himself to the point of distraction. But whatever happened, whatever pressure cauldron he was in, Jonny always backed Jonny. He knew what he had to do. Is that a strength or a weakness? Wilkinson kept himself to himself, and was slow to let people into his inner circle. He became a superstar early and learned how to carry himself with such dignity. Consider that what many see as his career highlight was 11 years ago. Because of the preparation he put into his game, Wilkinson wouldn’t have envisaged that World-Cup winning drop goal in Sydney as being off his ‘weak’ side. It was off his right side. He kicked another sublime drop goal in last week’s Heineken Cup final for Toulon off his right side too.
I wasn’t really a rival to him in 2001 with the Lions. But he helped, in that understated way he has, that said ‘this is what I do, this is the work required. It’s up to you’.
What happens next is a moot point for both Wilkinson and Brian O’Driscoll. Whether Brian is involved with Leinster next season may depend on how much he misses it, how much he can move on from rugby. He’s going to find it difficult not be involved. It’s hard to let go.