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'That was my dream... Munster was and still is the jersey I want to put on one day'

24-year-old second row Ciaran O’Flynn was born and bred near Bordeaux in France.
May 10th 2020, 8:00 AM 48,660 6

LIFE IN LOCKDOWN for 24-year-old Ciaran O’Flynn has meant a move back home to the medieval village of Saint-Émilion, close to Bordeaux, where he’s helping his father, Paddy, with the family wine business.

Paddy O’Flynn, a Cork man, is the owner of The Wine Buff and started exporting wines from Bordeaux to Ireland in the ’90s, having first moved to Saint-Émilion in 1988.

There are now 10 Wine Buff shops in Ireland, as well as the store in Saint-Émilion, where the O’Flynns are currently preparing in the hope that the French lockdown might be lifted by the end of the summer.

Ciaran already has a degree in the marketing of wines and spirits, but his real passion is rugby. For now, his ambition of rising up the ranks in the pro game is on hold but whenever the sport returns in France, O’Flynn will be joining Marmande, who play in Fédérale 1 – the semi-professional third tier of French club rugby.

WhatsApp Image 2020-05-07 at 15.02.49 O'Flynn plays in the third tier of French rugby.

The second row previously had a trial with Munster and played with Bordeaux’s U23 ‘espoirs’ team, but has spent the last few seasons in the school of very hard knocks that is Fédérale 1.

You might have heard about the Féd 1 game involving seven red cards, three yellow cards and two coaches being dismissed after mass brawls back in February. O’Flynn was in the thick of it with his Tarbes team-mates against neighbouring rivals Lannemezan.

Was he one of those red-carded?

“I’m too cute to get sent off!”

While his name couldn’t be more Irish-sounding, O’Flynn was born and bred in France, his Gallic accent indicating as much. Indeed, he only properly started speaking English at the age of 12.

Regular trips back to Ireland were a big part of his childhood, though, and the O’Flynns were huge Munster and Ireland fans.

“I remember getting in fights in school because Ireland would lose to France,” says Ciaran with laugh.

They travelled to watch Munster play Harlequins in the Heineken Cup in 2004, were in San Sebastián when the province lost their 2005 semi-final against Biarritz, and met the team after a clash with Castres in 2006.

“We went on the pitch afterwards and my dad knows the O’Connells. Paul took us into the changing rooms, so we got a picture with O’Gara, Stringer, all the lads. We were delighted.”

There was a Leinster Rugby summer camp in 2009, with Eric Miller making an impact on O’Flynn with his coaching.

“I never played in Ireland but my dad always spoke about the Irish spirit in rugby. When I was younger, there was an article about me and the journalist wrote ‘l’âme du l’isle vert‘, so ‘the spirit of the green island.”

O’Flynn started playing with the tiny Castillon-la-Bataille club, rising through the age grades to play for their senior team down in the seventh tier of French rugby, where an overachieving 2013/14 season allowed the teenage O’Flynn to show his talent and attract attention from bigger clubs including Top 14 outfit Bordeaux.

His father’s connections helped the then 19-year-old secure a chance with Munster and they travelled over for a trial that Ciaran recalls as daunting. Essentially an unknown, he knew he needed to make an impact.

“In my head, I was thinking I needed to hurt someone so they would see me. I was small for a second row, I was like a skeleton running around the pitch. But everything went well.”

Munster had some interest and as O’Flynn decided to head back to France, the channel of communication was kept open.

“We thought about it but I ended up going back to Bordeaux to do my degree specialising in wines and spirits, that was the place to do it. I wasn’t sure because I had no family in Limerick and I was quite young to move over alone.”

O'Flynn grew up as a Munster supporter Source: A. Bertrand

He linked up with Bordeaux as an academy player, first on a trial basis but then on a year-long contract that ended with the espoirs winning the national championship in 2016. Having come from a club that literally had only a pitch and no gym, O’Flynn admits it was a steep learning curve.

Bordeaux pushed O’Flynn, who was around 105kg when he joined, to put on much more size – a focus that is prevalent in French rugby.

“In a year, I put on 12 kilos. I remember at night I felt I was going to throw up because I was eating so much.”

He was often moved into the back row, a new position for him, but O’Flynn learned huge amounts and loved his time with Bordeaux. A year older and wiser, he felt ready for a shot in Ireland if he could get it.

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Connacht had already signed two second rows for their academy the following season but Nigel Carolan said he would meet O’Flynn to talk rugby anyway. It was an awakening of a chat for the lock, who was inspired by Carolan’s encouragement and questioning.

“He asked what we were eating over in France and I probably shouldn’t have answered that! Bordeaux were giving us free food but it was croissants, chocolatines, sugary cereals. We didn’t even have a nutritionist there.

“Then Nigel asked me about weights, and I thought we trained very hard. I was benching 120kg at the time. Nigel showed us the numbers from Connacht’s academy and there was a centre benching 220kg, loads of guys on 180kg. We were the French champions but there was a big difference.”

A meeting with Munster academy boss Peter Malone followed and again there was some interest. But two weeks later back in France, he was unlucky enough to tear his ACL and the communication dried up completely. 

“That was my dream, to go back to Ireland and play but we never had any news after that. Munster was and still is the jersey I want to put on one day.

“That was a sad moment for me, that dream was gone. But everything happens for a reason. It’s tough as a player but that happens to a lot of people. I think that made me a better person because I realised that you just have to work harder and harder.”

As he began the slog of rehab, O’Flynn joined Pro D2 club Soyaux Angoulême, where he once again encountered the French obsession with size as he worked back towards playing for their espoirs.

“They told me I needed to be bigger when I came back. I started going to the gym for an hour every day and eating a lot, too much. I went up to 122kg and that wasn’t all muscle but they were delighted. Sometimes in France, bigger is better just because of the scrum.”

O’Flynn joined the fully-professional Limoges in Fédérale 1 for the 2017/18 season, playing at 110kg and enjoying some excellent coaching before he encountered another reality of French rugby – the club was relegated down the leagues for financial reasons.

WhatsApp Image 2020-05-07 at 15.02.50 O'Flynn in action in Fed 1.

Last season brought a move to Grasse in the southeast, where he was semi-professional and worked at a school alongside playing with a club that was very different to Limoges – no gym, no nutritionist, no full-time S&C coach.

Still, O’Flynn was an important figure and played 21 times in what was a difficult season for the relegated Grasse, ensuring another move.

This season – which was cut short due to the Covid-19 crisis – was spent with Tarbes in the southwest of France. Ex-Harlequins and Worcester lock James Percival was forwards coach and a positive influence. Tarbes were having a good season and had a two-year plan to be promoted into the Pro D2 but bad news arrived with the lockdown of rugby.

“The players got a letter saying our contracts for next year were broken,” explains O’Flynn. “All the new signings were cancelled. Training was going to be in the evenings next season and everyone was going to have to work alongside playing rugby.”

O’Flynn says he would love a chance in the fully-professional Pro D2 or Top 14. An opportunity to play in Ireland or England would be ideal too, but he recognises that the current financial issues for English Championship clubs have dented that aim. 

So, he will be moving to Marmande, who are semi-pro but have a realistic project and will back O’Flynn as a key man without obsessing over him hitting 120kg on the scales.

He says Féd 1 can involve flowing attacking rugby at times and be brutal at others, as highlighted by the fighting back in February. 

“It’s physical rugby, really physical,” says O’Flynn. “It’s a lot about the scrums, mauls, lineouts.

“Sometimes players like me get put to the side and the guy who is 130kg gets favoured. But it’s changing a bit now because former Top14 and Pro D2 players are becoming coaches, so they have a different view of the game.

“In the smaller clubs, it can be pure violence at times. That video went viral, the derby with the red cards. But I come from Castillon, a very tough place.”

For now, O’Flynn is happy to be patient, working away with his old man in Saint-Émilion as he waits to see exactly how this lockdown affects rugby in the longer-term.

“Next year is going to be a very difficult year in French rugby after all of this, particularly in Féd 1,” says O’Flynn.

“Marmande will be closer to home and that’s good with my girlfriend. My dad can exploit me with work in the wine business too!”

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Murray Kinsella

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