Paula Fitzpatrick eyes historic first on familiar French soil

Trevor Brennan’s place has been the first port of call for thousands of Irish people visiting Toulouse for well over a decade now so there was nothing unusual in Paula Fitzpatrick and Heather O’Brien seeking him out on arrival last September.

These weren’t the usual pilgrims, though.

Two experienced Irish rugby internationals, they had accepted an offer to play with the Toulouse women’s side for the year in the country’s Top 8 and who better than the city’s favourite Irishman to mark their card for the season ahead?

Fitzpatrick and O’Brien were seasoned back rows.

They had been there and done that and their abilities were obvious again last Saturday when they made up two-thirds of a back row that dominated their Welsh counterparts at the breakdown in the side’s winning Six Nations opener at Donnybrook.

France, then, must have been something of a culture shock.

“Rucks are a big no-no,” said Fitzpatrick ahead of Ireland’s trip to Perpignan where France await on Saturday.

“One of the first things we were told when we went over there, by Trevor, was that if you are being pushed into touch just throw the ball and somebody will be there.

“The last thing they want is for there to be a break down in play.

“It is very skilful over there. A lot of Irish players wouldn’t have taken up the sport until they got to college whereas they are playing over there since they were six years old so their skill levels are very high.”

Still, the Irish pair settled quickly.

There are no contracts. They are not professionals, though their accommodation is taken care of.

Fitzpatrick is an exercise physiologist and can still run a business called Strivesport Science from France while O’Brien’s physiotherapy clinic in Mallow is being run by someone else for now. Unlike the men’s game there are few non-French players in the women’s league.

Toulouse, not for the first time, seem ahead of that game as they also have the Canadian second row Latoya Blackwood and a half-Swedish, half-Australian player by the name of Rebecca Kearney in their ranks.

They train full-time, including once a week with the Toulouse boys team, which Fitzpatrick has found hugely beneficial while the love for rugby throughout the south of France in particular has been an eye opener.

“They will support any rugby there, they love it. There are about 40 volunteers involved with the club who just come out and get breakfasts and lunches ready and that kind of thing. Physiotherapy and all the coaches involved with the club would be of a very high standard.”

Toulouse’s women section is headed by David Gerard, a once-capped French international who played for the club as well as Toulon, Racing Metro and Northampton among others and who now has a vision of linking the male and female strands of the game together.

It seems a progressive place to play and live.

Fitzpatrick, O’Brien and Blackwood were brought in for the experience they can offer to a squad with an average age of 20 — all three are in and around the 30-year old mark — and to bring some game management and strategy to their exciting but unstructured game.

The choice is there to play another season after this so they have clearly had an impact despite the fact that home between Christmas and the end of March is back here in Ireland where they are concentrating on the defence of the Six Nations title.

Four of their Toulouse team-mates are in the French squad while a large band of club members are making the two-hour trip to Perpignan for Saturday’s game to watch as Fitzpatrick, O’Brien and their Irish colleagues attempt to claim a first ever win on French soil for Ireland’s Women.

How sweet that would be.

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