Last Saturday, it was about minus 10 degrees in the Canadian capital of Ottawa. The wind chill added extra bite, but Gabriel Fulcher braved the cold.
He ventured to a pub downtown to watch Ireland’s Six Nations defeat to Scotland over some breakfast.
The food was easier to digest than the result.
“It was a little bit of a disappointing start and it’s never nice to lose the first one,” he said. “It’s not rocket science: All three Scottish tries were avoidable, But it’s a measure of how far Scotland have come in the last two or three seasons.”
Fulcher knows a thing or two about underestimating the underdog. Two of his 20 international caps as a second-row came against Italy and twice he suffered defeat. Between 1995 and 1997, the Azzurri had Ireland’s number, winning three straight games.
Shortly before the World Cup, Ireland headed to Treviso for a warm-up and were beaten by 10 points. Two years later at Lansdowne Road, Italy had an eight-point victory.
“We were probably surprised by the quality of them,” said Fulcher.
“We were very disappointed to lose, but I wouldn’t like to suggest that it wasn’t a quality Italian team. It was their one golden era that went on for a few years afterwards. Massimo Cuttitta was their big prop, a homegrown Italian guy. They had a lot of direct, hard-running players, but with Diego Dominguez pulling the strings in behind, and he could manage things very well. They were very direct and very physical. It’s not that other teams weren’t, but they managed a physicality that was, perhaps, of a higher intensity. Alessandro Troncon had just appeared on the scene. You had a tough Australian like Julian Gardner, too, and they ended up with this very high-quality team.”
The argument stands up. In the two games against Italy that Fulcher played, he was alongside elite Irish performers. In 1995, it was, give or take, the first-choice World Cup XV. In 1997, the Irish team contained four players who would turn out for the Lions just a few months later: Keith Wood, Paul Wallace, Jeremy Davidson, and Eric Miller.
While Fulcher is quick to praise the quality of that Italian side, he also points to difficulties experienced by Ireland at that time.
“The mid-90s was the most-disruptive period for Irish rugby,” he said.
“That period, where we had those couple of losses... it hurt us badly and, from ’95 onwards — when the professional game was announced — Irish rugby went through an awful lot of disruption for about 18/24 months. A lot of us went to the UK, because, initially, contracts weren’t available back home and they were still playing catch-up. We still would’ve been over there in 1997/98 and I think that affected the domestic game from a cohesion perspective. It took a few years to get it back and for things to settle down.
“The focus now from the IRFU, quite rightly, is to keep players playing in Ireland, so the domestic game is strong and everyone has bought into the same process and they’ve managed to maintain that very well.”
A strong domestic game is something Canada badly needs. Fulcher moved there in September 2015, finishing up as director of rugby with St Mary’s College and starting a new life with his haematologist wife and young daughter in Vancouver. A few days after arriving, he watched his adopted home go down heavily to Ireland in their World Cup opener. Inevitably, he was soon immersed in local coaching before landing a role with the provincial side, BC Bears. Fulcher has met with plenty of enthusiasm and talent, but he feels rugby is a long way from making a big impact on wider Canadian society.
“The biggest challenge is the strength of their domestic scene. Typically, a Canadian player who really makes it will go to Europe. That drains the domestic game more, because they don’t have a professional setup. It’s not even a semi-pro setup. That will always be a barrier and that comes down to having the wherewithal, the money, and infrastructure to set something up that’s better. Ireland has shown that you don’t have to have that many players to flourish. I think we have something like 200 professional players divided by four teams and you can be very competitive if you manage them well, coach them well and get the culture going. To have four teams here, you’re talking about five or six-hour flights between cities, and everywhere, bar the west coast in British Columbia, is under snow for six months.”
Fulcher’s foray into Canadian rugby circles has been put on hold for the time being. Last September, there was a move to Ottawa and another period of transition, but he’s used to stepping out of his comfort zone.
Upon retirement, he went back to college and pursued a master’s programme in creative writing at UCD. After that, there was another two-year postgraduate in fine arts, with Fulcher specialising in fiction writing.
“It’s not typical, but I do it because I love it,” he said.
“When I stopped playing rugby, there was a natural void in my life goals. You come to the end of a process that’s occupied your ambition for years and, all of a sudden, you’re standing there and asking: ‘What do I do now?’ I had an obsession with writing as a child, but by the time I was in my late-teens, rugby had taken over my life. Even then, when we’d go on those long tours, you’d have a lot of down time and I’d spend that time with my head always in a book or a film. Then, in my early-30s, I started to write just for my own interest and it gathered a bit and I went back to UCD and did the master’s.”
The move to Canada has seen Fulcher devote more time to the process, seeing him finish one novel. At 47, it’s a new challenge, but one he’s revelling in.
“I write a lot more now. I take it a bit more seriously. When we arrived in Vancouver, everything was a bit easier. I was coaching, but that was mostly evenings and weekends, so I had a lot more consistency. Over the year we were there, I wrote a novel and I have that with a couple of agents and publishers and I’m just waiting to see if it picks up any interest. It’s a bit dark, a bit of a tragedy and written in a Southern Gothic style, so it’s a bit niche. It’s about a young lad who’s raised by a southern preacher and who then marries his sweetheart, but they end up losing a child and he gets caught up in a conflict with his own faith.”
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