By James Harrington
As he left Munster Academy in the summer of 2017, Steven McMahon set himself a clear rugby goal — to return to the club that deemed him surplus to requirements.
Some 18 months later, the 23-year-old who now plays for Carcassonne in French rugby’s Pro D2 (second division), insists that playing for Munster again “was always the dream and is always the end goal”.
He said: “I have a very clear process in my head of what needs to happen and where I think I need to go for it to happen.
“Unfortunately, the road is very long and very tough and certain things have to fall my way, but 100% that is definitely the goal.”
Leaving Munster Academy at the end of his second year was definitely not in Dungarvan man McMahon’s life plan in March 2017 — until he was told late in the season that he was being let go.
Suddenly, he was a promising young player without a club; without, it seemed, a professional future.
Today, the ex-Rockwell College player is brimming with confidence — scoring a crucial breakaway try in a vital win over Brive last week — and on a rugby hot streak as he gets the important game-time he had been missing at Munster.
He started 18 of his 20 outings for Carcassonne last season, scoring four tries, and has worn the 15 shirt in all seven games so far in this campaign after re-signing for a second year.
The move from southwest Ireland to southwest France and a one-year academy deal at Carcassonne followed what McMahon described “a mad, frantic rush”.
“It was way too late to go looking for something. I was actually coming to the end of my second year at the academy and assumed I’d go into the third year.”
Then the bombshell dropped. He was to be let go.
Family connections helped in the aftermath of that shock, as McMahon vowed to show Munster had made a mistake letting him go.
“Frank Bradshaw, who’s at [ProD2 rivals] Nevers at the moment, his father and my mother are first cousins. So I got on to him and he put me in contact with his agent. One of my uncles also kind of knew Bernard Jackman and gave him a bell to see if there’s anything he could do.
“I heard nothing for three or four weeks, and I was really starting to get sweaty palms. Then the agent called and said: ‘There’s two teams looking at you in the south of France’.”
One of those teams was Provence, then in the third-tier Federale 1, and the other Carcassonne.
Another call to Jackman — who recommended the latter — sealed the deal.
“That was pretty much it,” McMahon said. “It was sorted within a couple of days after that. I signed and moved out here within two weeks.”
Moving to France at such short notice was a high-stakes gamble for a young player.
A Hail Mary rugby pass that could easily have failed. But while the early indications are that it has paid off, McMahon refuses to get carried away.
“No disrespect to Carcassonne as I’m absolutely enjoying my time here, but we’re in the second division. Last year, we were at the bottom of the table. You can’t compare that to Munster — at the top-end of rugby in all of Europe.”
And he credits the French side with something very important.
“I’ve got confidence back. The French way of playing can be very frustrating, but then it suits me down to the ground at other times that I’m allowed to roam around and play what’s in front of me.”
The confidence may have returned, but McMahon still occasionally finds himself doing a double-take at the gulf in rugby priorities between Ireland’s top tier and France’s second.
“There are loads of differences rugby-wise. All my rugby learning was done in Munster. You look at everything tactically, technically, through the video. Nobody’s too worried about hurting somebody feelings because you know it’s nothing personal.
“At Carcassonne, they’re very conscious of the emotional side of the game. Sometimes they don’t pick out as many negative things as needs to be picked out.”
McMahon points to an earlier try-scoring performance, against Beziers, which earned him a player of the week nod from respected rugby newspaper Midi Olympique.
“I made three or four really bad mistakes in the first 15 to 20 minutes,” he admitted. “But because I made a couple of breaks throughout the game and scored a try and was involved a lot, those errors were forgotten.
“You don’t have somebody picking on all the little details for you, you can just worry about your own game. But, on the flip side, if you’re playing at the highest level like Munster you 100% have to know what you’re doing wrong.”
After eight matches of the current campaign, Carcassonne — with a budget of €4.3m, the second smallest in the ProD2 — are fifth in the table, two points behind Mont-de-Marsan (€6.8m), Oyonnax (€11.37m) and Bayonne (€11.19m) and level-pegging with Brive (€12.77m) and Nevers (€12.4m).
But McMahon rubbishes the idea budgets have much to do with team performance.
“I know myself and a couple of other players just don’t understand why there a problem with us having a smaller budget than those guys — why would it be acceptable for us not to be competing with those guys?
“As far as we can see, we’ve a plenty big-enough budget to have everything we need. We have quality players, we have the facilities to get our training done. They’re not state of the art or anything like that, but it’s plenty to get our work done. There’s no reason why we can’t be competing at the top of the table.
“I feel it can be an excuse when things aren’t going well, it’s ‘we don’t have a big budget so we’re kind of where we should be”, but I think we’re showing it’s not everything.”
His argument is backed up by the evidence.
Last season’s Top 14 title was won by Castres, a side with the 10th largest budget in the French top flight. As McMahon pointed out, early in the season, people were talking about the eventual French champions in terms of the lower reaches of the table — with some doomsayers even whispering the R-word: Relegation.
Carcassonne flirted with the bottom of the table early on last season — before a change of management brought about a revival.
McMahon credits new boss Christian Labit, who moved from Aude rivals Narbonne, with much of the turnaround.
“He had a really big impact with the older guys and some of the French guys — particularly with the attitude and the confidence of the group.”
But, he believes a pair of unsung heroes deserve as much praise: “Julien Seron, who was one of our scrum-halves last year, took over the role of backs coach and Mathieu Cidre, the forwards coach. They’re putting really good plan in place for us. They’re the guys that do a lot of the hard work around training. I think they have a pretty good balance.
“Everybody’s happy, training’s a happy place, the locker room’s a happy place, so it makes it easier that way.”
For now, the future can take care of itself.
He may be out of contract at the end of the season, but McMahon has refused to worry about his future.
“I try not to think about that kind of stuff too much. I have an agent and the club will talk and any other clubs will talk as much as they want. I’ll just try to keep playing well, playing as much as I can and keep doing well for myself and the rest will sort itself out.
“So far so good — could be going better. Definitely could be going a whole lot worse. Hopefully if I keep playing well this season and see where things go, the next two or three seasons should be pretty interesting. That’s the plan, anyway.”