Two weeks ago, The Touchline looked at a team of young Irish players currently contracted in England (Youth XV Backline and Youth XV Pack). This week’s Exiled Irish piece is set in France, where there are a handful of Irish men plying their trade. It’s certainly a less popular destination for guys looking to leave these shores, but we may see more of it in the near future as the increasingly important rugby agents in Ireland broaden their contact bases.
Once again, it all boils down to the lack of opportunity here in Ireland for professional rugby players. Compared to our four provinces, France obviously has 14 teams in the Top 14 as well as a further 16 in the second-tier Pro D2. Many players who fail to make the grade with the provinces, or find themselves on the fringes of the senior set-ups, could easily forge a professional career for themselves in France.
The IRFU needs to change its stance on guys who play abroad. While never explicitly articulated, it’s generally accepted that moving away from Ireland decreases your chance of gaining international honours. While I’m not advocating a mass exodus of our top players, like we’re seeing from Wales at the moment, would it be such a bad thing if someone like Luke Fitzgerald were to play in the Top 14? It could improve him immensely as a player and a person. There are obvious negatives to players moving away but it’s worth a thought.
For now, I profile several Irish players currently contracted to French clubs. Again, the aim is to highlight guys who took a risk by moving abroad in order to ensure a continuing career in professional rugby. The intention is not to suggest these guys as immediate international prospects, but rather to applaud them for having the balls to move abroad to keep playing rugby. Interestingly, all four have played for Connacht!
A slightly different story to what has come in the Exiled Irish so far, but one worth highlighting. 31-year-old Farley is Irish by residency, having spent 5 seasons with Connacht. Born in Australia, he has had a long and varied career, but many Irish fans will remember his years in the second-row in Galway. Capped at U19 level for Australia, Farley moved to Italian side L’Aquila to play Heineken Cup rugby in ’00/01. The following season he did the same in Wales with Swansea, before Connacht swooped to sign him during the ’04/05 campaign.
5 years of Magners League and Amlin Cup followed in Ireland, 3 of them as captain. Having gained Irish nationality, Farley played for Ireland ‘A’ as they won the Plate at the 2007 Churchill Cup. In 2009, the Brisbane-born lock decided it was time for a new adventure and signed with Pro D2 side Grenoble. He was soon elected captain and this season has led the side to promotion to the Top 14. Farley is contracted for next season too and looks likely to be the first Irish man to captain a Top 14 club. An exiled exile, if you will, and a legend too!
The 26-year-old tighthead prop is currently with French Pro D2 side Narbonne. Back in 2004, while still at St.Mary’s, he represented the Irish Schools alongside Rob Kearney, Sean Cronin and Devin Toner. After graduating, he spent a couple of years playing AIL with UCD, before Connacht signed him for the ’07/08 season. However, only 1 start followed in the next two seasons, prompting a move to Italian Super 10 outfit Venezia. In Italy, the Dubliner finally enjoyed first-team rugby and his 15 starts earned him a move to Narbonne at the start of the ’10/11 season.
Narbonne have struggled to set the Pro D2 alight in the last couple of seasons, finishing 13th in McGovern’s first season and lying 14th with just one fixture remaining this year. Matt Williams came in as Coaching Director and a shareholder at the club this season but has had little impact. As for McGovern, he has been involved in 14 of Narbonne’s 27 league fixtures this season, although has only started 3 times. Still relatively young for a prop, McGovern has plenty of time to secure a more important berth within the squad.
Short is the only Irish-qualified player contracted to a Top 14 club at the moment. Unfortunately it looks almost certain that he and his Lyon teammates will be swapping places with Farley and co. for next season. Lyon are bottom of the Top 14 with just three games remaining. 32-year-old Short was born in Newcastle, England but qualifies for Ireland through his parents. His professional career began with Connacht in 2003. His impressive form in the ’05/06 campaign earned him a move to Premiership side Northampton the following season, where he was first-choice in a Heineken Cup year.
However, the Saints were relegated to the Championship and second-row Short headed for Top 14 side Brive. The 6’6″ lock enjoyed two seasons there, once again playing Heineken Cup rugby in ’09/10. The following season he dropped down to the Pro D2 to join current club Lyon. Short, an intelligent lineout operator, played a major role as Lyon were promoted in his first season. However, life in the Top 14 has proved tough for Lyon. Short’s impact on the French top-tier has been limited to just 4 starts. Still, he has made a great career out of rugby since leaving Ireland.
Lyon Profile: Christian Short (check out the bad video).
McGowan is in his 5th season with Pro D2 side La Rochelle. The 26-year-old Sligo native has been capped by Ireland at U19 and U21 levels (the same year as Sean O’Brien, Jonny Sexton and Paul Marshall amongst others) while playing with Buccaneers RFC. A development contract with Connacht followed in ’05/06 but over the course of two seasons, the 6’5′ lock made just 5 substitute appearances. He hired an agent and signed with La Rochelle at the start of the ’07/08 season, becoming an important first-team player almost immediately.
La Rochelle were promoted to the Top 14 for the ’10/11 campaign, but McGowan’s season was frustratingly limited to 6 starts by a shoulder injury and concussion, also preventing him from making an appearance in the Amlin Challenge Cup. This season, back in the Pro D2, the western outfit have gone well and look likely to be involved in next month’s promotion play-offs. Once again, injuries have somewhat restricted McGowan’s involvement, but he continues to enjoy life in France. In McGowan’s own words: “People often don’t realise how much of a closed shop it can be at home. There are only four professional clubs in Ireland”.
La Rochelle Profile: David McGowan