As you would expect from a player just named in his division’s team of the month, life is pretty sweet right now for former Munster hooker Denis Fogarty.
In fact, the way he feels about things now, that day last summer, when he stood bewildered in the middle of a French training pitch, could be light years ago.
Fresh off the plane and embarking on a new chapter in his life and professional rugby career after eight seasons and 91 appearances for his native province, the hooker began his first day at Aurillac feeling “worthless”, hampered by his inability to speak the language and pondering why he’d been so foolish as to leave Ireland.
“When I came over here, at my first training session I literally questioned myself, ‘what have I done?’, ‘what am I doing here?’ I hadn’t a clue what they were saying,” Fogarty, 29, told the Irish Examiner.
“They were doing moves and stuff and I was just completely lost, standing in the middle of the field, worthless. But as the weeks went on, and with the French classes, I’m picking up a small bit and communicating more and it’s good but I was frustrated at the start.
“The lifestyle is great and the change in the weather is a good thing. It’s a change from going out in the dull and the dark days, going to training and it’s still dark and it’s pouring rain. I did that for nine years and had enough of it. So the change was good and lifestyle-wise I love it here. And I am enjoying my rugby.”
Fogarty has good reason to love life in the small, rugby-mad town in the Auvergne region, where the big city team is Clermont, which hosts European champions Leinster this weekend, but the passion for his French Division Two club is just as strong.
“They’re hugely, hugely passionate people about their rugby over here. It’s their main sport in the Auvergne region and they’re rugby crazy. There really is a great atmosphere around the town when the games are on. It’s very similar to home, just on a smaller scale.”
Fogarty has helped Aurillac to sixth place in D2 ahead of Saturday’s trip to 10th-placed Auch. Aurillac lie 16 points behind runaway leaders Oyonnaix but with only three points separating second-placed Lyon and La Rochelle in seventh, promotion to the promised land of the Top14 is more than just a pipe dream, even if his new club are unable to match the spending power of many of their rivals. “We’re dealing with clubs like Brive, our local rivals, and Lyon, who are pushing to go up, La Rochelle, they’re the three big, big teams with massive budgets, four or five times the size of the budget we have. But we’re realistic in targeting a top-five finish and we’re well able to do that.”
Adding to the successful mix for Aurillac and Fogarty is the brand of rugby the club plays under head coach and fellow expat, Jeremy Davidson. “He likes to get everyone’s hands on the ball and we play a lot of rugby. It’s very enjoyable. I get the ball a bit more and I’m able to express myself on the pitch and that’s what I love doing.”
The irony that Munster are employing a similar style now under new coach Rob Penney is not lost on Fogarty, who added: “I was a bit frustrated at times, I suppose, last year, maybe not getting as much game time but when I did, we just didn’t get our hands on the ball. But I see this season they’re actually doing it, so it’s kind of like ‘Jeez!’, I’m liking the way they’re playing now, getting their hands on the ball and everyone’s getting to play rugby. We play a similar rugby to that and it’s hugely enjoyable and teams struggle against it. It’s good.”
French fans are equally enjoying the part Fogarty is playing for his team. The Cashel hooker turned Aurillac talonneur is his club’s first-choice in the position and his contributions earned him a place in November’s D2 team of the month. Fogarty, it seems, is at one with his new environment and the challenge.
“I was never really the type of player who enjoys getting down and dirty and working in tight play. I’m more of a loose player and I suppose at times it kind of came against me because we didn’t play that type of rugby (at Munster) and I struggled to get my hands on the ball. I’m a looser forward than that and over here they use me in the loose a lot, which is what I love and that’s why it’s going so well for me.”
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