HE may be talking over the phone, 1 500km removed from home, but it quickly becomes clear that Dave O’Callaghan has a spring in his step.
After weeks of lockdown and nightly pandemic-related updates, it seems slightly strange to report such glad tidings but the former Munster man has more than one reason to be in good spirits.
Life in Biarritz, it seems, is turning out just grand and the one-time Munster Academy player of the year is relishing what lies ahead as rugby in France’s PRO D2 begins to prepare for a new season.
Now 30, the former Dolphin man left Munster last summer in search of more game time and has not been disappointed at the opportunities presented to him by Biarritz Olympique, a famous old club with pockets finally deep enough thanks to the involvement of a Hong Kong investment group to match its ambitions for a return to the Top 14 after a now-six-year absence.
The promise is a return to the good old days, of Harinordoquy and Betsen, Bobo and Yachvili, and O’Callaghan is only too happy to be on the ground floor of a project in which Munster is also represented by Billy Scannell and former scrum-half James Hart.
“There’s a new regime under president Jean-Baptiste Aldigé and the director of rugby Matthew Clarkin … which finances the club and has probably changed things around a bit,” O’Callaghan said.
“They have come in and put their stamp on it and have tried to get a bit of stability after a few years of a lot of players coming and going and a lot of changes. They are strengthening the club and trying to bring back Biarritz to where it should be. It’s a massive, iconic club and there’s massive expectation and we need to be in the Top 14. Coming in, that’s been the challenge but it’s not going to happen overnight. We’re in a hurry to do it but it’s going to take a bit of time as we saw last season but we’re going in the right direction.”
When Covid-19 took its grip on France in late February, Biarritz were pushing hard for a play-off place when the PRO D2 2019-20 season was abandoned and the desire for progress has not been dimmed if the recent signing of Australia wing Henry Speight and former Munster and New Zealand centre Francis Saili is any indication.
O’Callaghan is excited by the possibilities and embracing a lineout leadership role in what he feels is a well-blended squad of French and foreign talent.
“It has been really enjoyable. I think in the second half of the season, I was starting to show a bit more of my best form and starting to get a bit happier with how I was playing. I found it tough at the start, maybe it was the new environment and getting used to the league and different systems.
“I was calling the lineout as well and while I’d had a lot of experience in lineouts, that was probably a bit new for me after being in a team like Munster with such high quality there. So, actually calling it was a new challenge for me and it just meant I probably focused a bit too much on it early doors and didn’t play my own game quite as much. But as the season progressed I started to get my own balance right and showed some better form.”
There are baby steps at the moment as rugby finds its feet on the way back from coronavirus restrictions and O’Callaghan is finding the positives in the extra time the Biarritz squad is getting during the hiatus.
The squad has progressed from medical testing and screening to working in what the Corkman describes as “small skill blocks and speed work, strength and conditioning”.
“We’re using the time well to focus on the fine details of technical stuff like hand position in passing and keeping square etc. Or more positional-specific stuff like scrum technique or for lineout jumpers like me, we’ve been looking at foot position and speed of jump, time to get you in the air, so it’s been really good from that standpoint.”
The expectation is for a return to full training on July 13 subject to government approval, when Saili and Speight are expected to arrive, followed by pre-season games from August 14 against Bordeaux, Pau and Mont De Marsan.
The rate of change is speeding up and a far cry from the dark days of March when O’Callaghan’s week off at home in Youghal turned into an enforced stay as Europe shut down.
“I was back in Ireland at the start of everything. We had a week’s holiday, but then everything kicked off and I was told to stay put for a while. I’ve been back here (in Biarritz) since May.
“But it was good being at home for a while. That’s probably where you want to be at times like this and I was able to do a lot of training that I might not have been able to do in France because of restrictions. I was in Youghal with the parents and Youghal Rugby Club gave me some gym equipment and a grassy area outside so I was better off than what a lot of people had.”
As the Covid-19 restrictions began to ease in France, it was time to swap Youghal Strand for La Grand Plage and there was no knock on his home town when O’Callaghan admitted it was a great feeling to go back.
“It was good to be back home and I was fortunate to have some space with a garden, and in a small town with a beach but it’s something else to be getting back to normality and the routine that rugby players crave and what you’re paid to do.”
Living in south-west France and the Basque seaside resort town of Biarritz certainly helps the transition back to normality as well and O’Callaghan is enjoying his new life, sharing an apartment near the beach with former Munster hooker Scannell.
“Billy’s an espoir, in the senior academy here, and we share an apartment. He’s about 10 years younger than me and it’s gas! He’s brilliant and ultra-professional for such a young guy. James Hart lives up the road, there’s a good group of foreigners and a brilliant group of French guys. The blend has worked really well so there’s no kind of divide there that you might see in other teams.
“Having the beach on your doorstep is brilliant as well. I’ve been getting into the sea a lot, we’ve the Grand Plage just next to us here, and there’s a lot of boats around. There’s a massive surfing scene as well so it’s a dream in that sense. We’re not the best surfers yet but we’re getting there.
“I feel we’re building something here. It’s an iconic club in France and we want to be promoted and playing back where it should be in the Top 14. We know the work that’s involved and we relish that.”
O’Callaghan swaps Youghal strand for La Grand plage