THERE WILL BE at least one Irishman in Stade Jean-Bouin today eager to see a Stade Français win over Munster.
Laois native Kevin Smith is in his sixth season as part of the Top 14 club’s strength and conditioning team, having initially joined when Michael Cheika made the move from Leinster to Paris.
In an alternative world, Smith might be preparing for a new season of inter-country football, but he is very much at home and happy working with one of the leading clubs in France.
The 28-year-old is a graduate of sports science at the University of Limerick and a one-week placement with Leinster before his final year of study proved to be fateful in his career.
He is a cousin of Stephen Smith, the former Leinster S&C/rehab coach who is now storming the US with the rapidly-expanding Kitman Labs. After a six-month Erasmus spell in Sweden, Kevin convinced his relative to bring him into the Leinster set-up for a week in the summer of 2009.
“I was just a work shadow, standing there looking at what they were doing, that kind of thing,” says Smith. “I went back to finish fourth year in UL and the day after my exams, Stephen rang me to say the management team from Leinster, Michael Chieka and Chris Whitaker, were moving to Stade.
The head S&C guy from Leinster, Chris Dennis [who won the 2009 Heineken Cup with Cheika], went to Stade as well and they needed an intern for the S&C department.”
Fresh out of college, Smith pounced on the opportunity and accepted a year-long internship in Paris that meant going unpaid. Stade did provide him with accommodation in the city, but it was still a huge leap for someone who admits his French was shaky at best.
“I got a D2 in ordinary level French in my Leaving Cert,” says Smith with a self-deprecating laugh. “I hadn’t used it for four years during my undergrad degree, so the language barrier was the first thing and getting used to living in a different city, it was a big learning curve arriving here first.”
The move also meant Smith had to turn his back on an opportunity to play football for Laois at senior level. The Graiguecullen clubman had represented his county extensively in the minor and U21 sides, and spent an entire pre-season working under senior coach Sean Dempsey before the chance at Stade arose.
His hope of featuring in the Leinster championship was cut short, though Smith does say he holds “some sort of stupid, futile hope that one day I may be able to go back and give it a crack.”
The decision to venture to Paris is one Smith has no regrets over. The season after his apprenticeship, he was promoted to the full-time role of assistant S&C coach, which involved duties such as collecting GPS data and aiding the Stade squad’s gym work.
After a relatively unhappy spell, Cheika departed in 2012, taking Dennis with him. That meant Richard Pool-Jones filling the coaching void and left Smith and one of his colleagues in charge of the club’s S&C department on “an interim basis for the gestation of the entire year.”
It was a valuable experience for Smith, but the arrival of current head coach Gonzalo Quesada [the former Argentina out-half] in 2013 brought stability and a new head of athletic performance in Alex Marco, who had previously had a stint with the club up to 2007.
Smith now works extremely closely with Marco and Stade’s other two S&C employees, Quentin Sone Ehawa and François Castex, with each man overseeing different areas.
“I’m principally in charge, obviously under Alex’s supervision, but basically of the training load. So what the guys do in the gym, how we prescribe what conditioning they do off the field and on the field, their strength needs, power, all that kind of thing in one global picture.
“We’d heavily involve the GPS, heart rate data, match data.”
The template Smith uses to track Stade’s players’ working loads is very similar to the highly-regarded ‘Profiler’ product Kitman Labs offer, one which the likes of the IRFU have invested in.
Kevin says himself and California-based Stephen try to avoid talking shop when they get a rare chance to catch up, although his experienced cousin has always been willing to offer advice when required.
The perception of the French approach to S&C in Ireland tends to be somewhat dismissive, the widespread belief being that French sides are not as fit as their peers elsewhere.
Smith hasn’t generally found French athletes any less intense in their approach to the physical side of training, however, and mentions that his own GAA experience means he never accepts laziness or excuses in the gym or on the pitch.
“The football background was a unique perspective to have, because I’d been driving from Limerick to Portlaoise for training five nights a week,” says Smith of combining his final year in UL with senior Laois training.
“That was before the new motorway was finished, so three hours each way, train, getting up for college the next day, trying to eat, all of that. I guess that lessened my tolerance for guys here when all they have to do is show up, train, go home!”
Smith underlines that he must always respect the “cultural differences that go along with” living in France, with regards to S&C as well as day-to-day life. One area where he sees some difference between Irish and French rugby is in the young players coming into the professional game.
“You see that every academy guy coming through there [in Ireland] is a beast,” says Smith. “It’s not quite the same here, but they have a much bigger population to pick and choose from.
“Sport is king here, even to the extent that no one goes to school on a Wednesday morning. Wednesday morning is dedicated just to them doing whatever sport they want. Their pick is a lot bigger from that alone, but then we’d have some guys here who didn’t take up rugby until they were 17 or 18, and they’d be absolute monsters.
“The transfer effect from judo – which is huge here – handball, soccer, everything. I think they’re more on a numbers game here, whereas in Ireland rugby is probably down the pecking order with football and hurling.”
Given the change from Cheika to Pool-Jones to Quesada, life at Stade Français has included a fair bit of madness for Smith, but he has loved every moment of the ride. A Top 14 title last season has naturally been the peak moment so far.
Stade finished the regular season fourth in the league table, and had to beat Racing, Toulon and then Clermont in the play-offs to claim their first trophy since the 2007 league success.
“I would say it was a culmination of all the hard work and everything, but there was a couple of really difficult seasons there where we’d finished further down the league than I felt we deserved,” says Smith.
“Not that everything was smooth sailing last season, but everyone was going in the same direction, the team spirit was up, everything clicked at the right time of the season for us.”
While Smith continues to relish working with Stade’s multicultural squad of world-class players such as Sergio Parisse, Will Genia, Rabah Slimani, Willem Alberts and Pascal Papé – “who is very popular in Ireland” – he is also enjoying life in the city of Paris.
The terrorist attacks in November were a “weird, weird” time and the city remains in recovery mode from that devastation. Stade hooker Rémi Bonfils was in a restaurant near the Bataclan when the attacks on the concert hall occurred, and Smith says most people in Paris were linked somehow.
“Everyone knew someone that was in some way connected to it. They were either in the stadium watching the game in Saint Denis, or they were out having dinner. The whole place went into shut down, even if you weren’t affected by the shooting.”
The episode was a major shock to Smith and the entire city, but he stresses that Parisians are bouncing back.
“The one way I could describe it is that everyone’s feelings were palpable. You were walking down the street and you got the impression that everyone was watching everyone else, people were kind of afraid to take metros and trains. The streets were quieter, when they’d normally be bustling.
“The French will always say, ‘We have our rights, no one is going to scare us,’ but then when they gathered in public someone set off firecrackers and scared everyone again. It’s a weird time, but they’re very, very resilient people, the French.”
Despite that obvious setback, Smith is enjoying living in Paris with his girlfriend but laughs at the suggestion that he is well established as a local. He gets the “odd snide remark” about his accent when he’s home in Laois but remains “as Irish as it gets.”
He has joined the Paris Cockerels, an Aussie Rules side, as a means of staying fit and healthy, although he does admit to having arrogantly assumed his Gaelic background would mean he would slot in more seamlessly than was the reality.
“I played my first match and I felt like I’d been hit by a train!” says Smith. “Just the way they approach it is mental. In Gaelic, you get the ball and the first thing you’re encouraged to do is turn and beat your man.
“With the Aussie rules, because you have the right to plough through a fella with a shoulder, the golden rule is to never, ever do a u-turn. If you’re going one way and get the ball, stay going that way and hand it off to someone who can see in front of them.
“Otherwise you risk taking a fairly hefty shoulder or something like that. It was a weird one to overcome, but I need to stay fit given my job title and it was something new to learn.”
Football will always have the greatest hold on Smith’s heart, though he says he will likely have to forgo the dream of playing for Laois with his life in Paris set to continue for the short-term future at least.
“I want to be as good as I can and be as successful as I can with what I’m doing,” says Smith. “Stade have had me for a while now and hopefully it continues. The lure of coming home is always strong, so who knows?”