If individual awards — Player of the Month, Man of the Match and the like — are an indication of the impact made by James Coughlan in his first season playing French rugby, then the boy has done well.
In fact, he has done very well, so much so that his contribution to Pau’s spectacular return to the top flight of French rugby, after almost a decade languishing in D2, has led to serious discussions about prolonging his current two-year deal with the club to which he is contracted until the end of next season.
Life is good for Coughlan and for the cash-rich club sponsored by giant petroleum company Total, which will back Pau head coach Simon Mannix’s attempts to strengthen his squad for the tough days ahead.
Mannix has already succeeded in wooing All Black legend Conrad Smith, likely to see out his rugby playing days with a contract after the World Cup, and indeed he has also signed fellow Kiwi Colin Slade — a top fly-half. With a big budget at his disposal, the former Munster assistant to Rob Penney is unlikely to stop there.
On a personal front, Coughlan will be delighted to welcome former Munster back-row colleague Sean Dougall to Stade du Hameau for pre-season training next month
. It’s then that the hard work begins in earnest as his side prepares to take on French rugby giants Toulouse, Toulon and Clermont Auvergne and the like.
But as four clubs — Perpignan, Agen, Albi and Mont-de-Marsan — battle it out for the second promotional spot from D2, Coughlan and colleagues can bask in the glory of having won the title by a clear 11 points.
“We got a great start, winning several games on the bounce, that made it very easy for us, well relatively easy, as the season progressed.
“It gave us a bit of breathing space, meant we could afford to lose the occasional game because our rivals were going to lose matches anyway.”
Although Coughlan wasn’t quite sure what to expect — and prospects of promotion appeared to be a pipe-dream — when he opted to finally leave his beloved Munster, he admits he wasn’t surprised either.
“Big name players like Damien Traille and Jean Bouilhou were stand-out guys in training but there was a corps of hard-working guys and a great work ethic, so it was good news from the very start.”
With a wife and two young children, Coughlan was determined to make the move work early on and admits: “It was easy enough to settle in, there is a crew of foreigners in the club and that was a help; in fact we have socialised here more than we had back home, basically because we had to. In Ireland it was obviously much easier because we were mixing with the people that we grew up with.
“But I’m delighted, the French is coming on, I’m understanding pretty much everything and hopefully by the end of next season I can have a conversation without having to revert to English. “The kids have really taken to it. They’re attending an international school but learning French quickly. In fact, my five-year-old daughter has taken to correcting me when I make mistakes with the language.”
Clearly, he didn’t make too many mistakes on the pitch. “Yeah, it went really well, I picked up some awards, four or five Player of the Months and a few Man of the Match awards as well,
“Most of all, I went through the season without picking up injuries and that was a huge boost. Funny, the season is only just finished but I’m already really looking forward to the pre-season.”
Having overcome the first challenge of moving to a different country and adapting to a different style, Coughlan knows that next season will be different and essentially more challenging again.
The challenge is to stay in the top flight of French rugby.
“It would be good to have to face up to the top clubs early in hoping that they will have some players away at the World Cup! But seriously, the ambition is to make an impact on the league, hopefully to do well enough so we’re involved in the play offs at the end of the season. I really don’t see any reason why we can’t.”
For now, with or without a perfect grasp of French, Coughlan is happy and despite missing certain aspects of home and often his friends in Munster rugby, it’s very much a case of ‘Sans Regret’.
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