What is it with Irish rugby players and coaches heading to the mountains in France? In the Pyrenees, Pau has become an Irish enclave, while over in the Alps, Grenoble has become green.
Of course, if we are all mountain people, so to speak, then Jonathan Sexton and Ronan O’Gara would have forsaken Racing in Paris and gone to Clermont Auvergne up in the Massif Central.
But the Irish have always followed each other abroad. All it ever took was one fella from Bohola to settle in Buffalo and suddenly half of Mayo, it would seem, would land there.
And yet, of all the clubs, towns and cities in France you’d never have envisaged Grenoble attracting the Irish.
In a way, it is more Swiss than French, a huge research city exploring the sciences with laboratories and space-age type buildings which wouldn’t be out of place in a James Bond or sci-fi movie.
Connacht went there about a dozen years ago and, having arrived at night, players were stunned when they threw open the curtains in the morning to discover snow-covered mountains right outside the window.
The city is almost completely flat, it’s built on a river plain and is surrounded by mountains.
“In one way it’s far away from everywhere but yet very close to so many places, if you know what I mean,” said Grenoble team manager Andrew Farley, who was one of the Connacht players who arrived there back in the 2005 and left with a 26-21 win in the first leg of a quarter-final tie they won 45-24 on aggregate.
“You can get to the rest of Europe so easily from here, it’s not long by road to Switzerland or Italy and a short flight will bring you anywhere in the continent.”
The arrival of Bernard Jackman, another who featured on that Connacht team in Grenoble in 2005, was the catalyst for the Irish invasion. He arrived initially as a part-time consultant and quickly worked his way up through the ranks to the top job.
Mike Prendergast, who had played at nearby Bourgoin, followed while the trickle of Irish players then ensued.
Some, like Clontarf’s James Hart, Irish U20 prop Denis Coulson and Young Munster’s Shane O’Leary — who will play for Connacht today — went there after failing to secure a place in the provincial academies.
Others, like former Ulster centre Chris Farrell, needed a fresh start after a couple of years dogged by injury.
“If we can provide another outlet for players, then it’s great,” said Prendergast.
“The Irish system is producing an abundance of young players and that’s great, but there are only so many places available in academies. So if we can provide an outlet and help these players develop, then it’s great for everyone.”
Rugby has a strong tradition in the area with the amalgamation of a few smaller clubs forming what we now know as Grenoble.
The club’s most glorious day came in 1954 when they defeated Cognac 5-3 to lift the Bouclier de Brennus for the first and only time.
They came close to be champions of France again in 1993 but a controversial refereeing decision helped Castres triumph.
They were relegated the sea on Connacht beat them in the quarter-finals in 2005 and dark days followed when a big financial hole was discovered in an audit and the authorities relegated them further to Federal 1.
But the club clawed its way back and returned to Pro D2. The acquisition of the likes of Farley gave them leadership on the field and promotion to the Top 14 followed in 2012.
“What we are trying to do is build a strong, sustainable side. It’s a very demanding competition so there is a need to build incrementally, but it’s happening,” said Jackman.
The club is based at Stade Lesdiguieres — named after one of the region’s leaders four and a half centuries ago — but now plays all its games at the 20,068 capacity Stade des Alpes.
The stadium, very similar to Liberty Stadium in Swansea, is set in the middle of the city and was originally intended for the soccer team.
However, while Grenoble Foot 38 was promoted to Ligue 1 in 2008-09 when Stade des Alpes opened, the club went into freefall and financial problems saw it sink to the fifth level of French football.
The city, which hosted the Winter Olympics in 1968, is, inevitably, the centre for a huge skiing region, while it became a pioneer in hydro-electricity a century and a half ago.
And if you want to move mountains the gigantic Caterpillar corporation, which has its French headquarters there, will provide the machinery.
The city was a stronghold of the Résistance during World War II. That resistance was also evident on April 1st in 2009 when disgruntled workers, fearing for their jobs, held their bosses overnight in the Caterpillar plant, before the standoff eventually ended.
Connacht supporters visiting this weekend will be attracted to La Bastille, a large fortification on the mountainside overlooking the city.
It is accessed by cable-car, with Les Bulles (‘the bubbles’) offering a breath-taking view of the city and the mountains.
Down below them will be Stade des Alpes where Pat Lam’s men will be trying to scale their own heights in this wondrous season which has taken them from the Sportsground to Siberia and now the snowy mountains.
© Irish Examiner Ltd. All rights reserved