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'This move happened at the right time but I got such a good grounding in Munster'

Back row Dave O’Callaghan is a year into his time with French club Biarritz.
Jun 13th 2020, 10:00 AM 27,140 7

WITH THE SUN splitting the stones, people returning to the beaches, and cafes and bars opening up again, life in Biarritz is beginning to move back towards something like normality.

Former Munster back row Dave O’Callaghan, who plays for the town’s Pro D2 team, has been back in the southwest of France for around two weeks now, having been happily caught at home in Youghal visiting his family when the lockdown came into effect.

Everything is starting to move on the rugby front in Biarritz too. O’Callaghan and his team-mates were brought in by the club for testing this week – masks on, nasal tests, blood tests, questionnaires, fitness tests, mental health checks.

dave-ocallaghan 30-year-old O'Callaghan moved to Biarritz last year. Source: Oisin Keniry/INPHO

There isn’t 100% clarity around how the next few weeks and months will work in terms of training but already Biarritz’s president has been announcing plans for pre-season friendlies in August before the new Pro D2 campaign begins in September.

A season into his time with the club, O’Callaghan is happy to see things ramping up as Biarritz look to push on with a project that aims to restore the club to its former heights of Top 14 titles and Heineken Cup competitiveness in the opening 10 years of this century.

O’Callaghan thoroughly enjoyed his first year in Biarritz after an eight-season spell with Munster that saw him make 85 appearances in total. When it came to making a decision to leave at the end of the 2018/19 season, the timing was right for O’Callaghan.

“It was a massive thing for me with Munster having been my club all my life but in terms of making the rugby decision, it was straightforward,” he explains.

“I had a lot of good years in Munster and played in some big games under some great coaches and with world-class players. That has hopefully made me the player I am but I was 29 and thinking ‘I’m in my prime and need to be playing more.’ I have had a few injuries but felt I had so much more to give without having too many miles on the clock.

“I had hunger. When Biarritz cropped up, it wasn’t just going to any club. It was maybe a division lower but it was going to an iconic club and a club I grew up watching.

“So I moved for those reasons but it still weighed heavy on my heart because you’re leaving somewhere that had given you so much over the years.”

O’Callaghan started out with Youghal RFC but began taking rugby more seriously in Midleton College, impressing enough to make it onto Munster Schools and Ireland Schools teams before he advanced into Munster’s academy.

He counts himself lucky to have worked with the late Anthony Foley from Munster U20 level, when ‘Axel’ was just starting his own coaching career. As Foley moved up the ranks, so too did O’Callaghan – into the academy, the A team, on into the senior set-up.

dave-ocallaghan O'Callaghan can play at blindside, openside, or in the second row. Source: Oisin Keniry/INPHO

“I’ve since been told that he was always backing me in selections and he was a fan of mine, apparently,” says O’Callaghan.

“God rest his soul, he wasn’t someone who would show you that and while I always felt he was in my corner, he had the professionalism not to show that to you in order to get the best out of you.”

O’Callaghan raves about the technical influence Foley had on him, particularly around the maul and lineout. To this day in Biarritz, his ‘extras’ before and after training are things Foley showed him.

Having played just 10 times in the Pro14 in his final two seasons with Munster, O’Callaghan was eager to take the chance of first-team rugby with Biarritz last season and the move has worked out well as he quickly became a key player.

He has had to get used to the sometimes very different approach to professionalism – Biarritz don’t have a nutritionist, while recovery massages aren’t part of the schedule as they would be in Munster – but the positives have been multiple in the Pro D2.

“You’re playing in unbelievable places, you’re going to stadiums that are packed out,” says O’Callaghan, who was joined in making the move to Biarritz last year by fellow Munster men James Hart and Billy Scannell.  

“You’d expect that in places like Perpignan and Grenoble but you’re going to places like Vannes and Never that people might not say are synonymous with rugby but you turn up and the ground is packed, people are hissing at you, it’s an unbelievable atmosphere.”

O’Callaghan has been able to see close up why away records can be so poor in France. It’s often more about the home team’s heightened performance rather than the travelling side’s deficiencies.

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“You see just how it’s so sacrosanct to win at home. You’re literally playing against the whole town, they’re all baying for your blood. Someone was telling me it goes all the way back to wine cultivation and they’re literally defending their own soil. It’s brilliant.”

simon-zebo-interviews-dave-ocallaghan O'Callaghan with Simon Zebo back in 2015. Source: Morgan Treacy/INPHO

That said, the lack of TMO reviews at most games last season was jarring for O’Callaghan.

“If the ref has a 50/50 decision and the crowd is baying, you know which way it’s going to go,” says the former Dolphin RFC man.

“Then I remember away to Angoulême, James Hart got high-tackled, shoulder to the head, unconscious on the pitch and there was no sanction for the player, nothing. It’s dangerous because you can’t look back on stuff and it’s tough for referees making decisions.”

Biarritz were in sixth position when the remainder of the 2019/20 was cancelled, so inside the play-off places, and O’Callaghan says they would have loved the chance to play through the warmer months of the season. It rains heavily in Biarritz during the winter and the heavy set-piece contests didn’t always perfectly suit their mobile, fit pack.

There are big ambitions around Biarritz again, explains O’Callaghan. Current president Jean-Baptiste Aldigé took over in 2018 with the backing of a group from Hong Kong and “is in a hurry” to get BO back where they feel they belong.

The club has plans to build commercial units around its home ground of Parc des Sports Aguiléra in order to increase revenues, while they have already confirmed some fine signings for next season including ex-Munster and All Blacks centre Francis Saili, while the club has also been strongly linked to former Wallabies wing Henry Speight.

With their two Heineken Cup finals in 2006 and 2010 – as well as Top 14 successes in 2002, 2005, and 2006 – very much remembered with pride, O’Callaghan believes Biarritz are moving in the right direction.

“There’s an older generation that come down to training and you can chat away to them about everything about the club. They might tell you about Eddie O’Sullivan, who is obviously from Youghal as well, being here.

“There’s still that big local rivalry with Bayonne and they’re in the Top 14, so that’s the challenge for us. Seeing them go up is good for the whole region and we want to get up and compete with them.

hotel-du-palais-in-biarritz-g7-summit-in-france Biarritz in the southwest of France. Source: DPA/PA Images

“We’re definitely an ambitious group and you could see a legacy being built here again.”

Off the pitch, life is good. O’Callaghan’s apartment is a stone’s throw from the beach, right in the heart of surfing haven Biarritz, while he has been enjoying the culinary delights of one of the most beautiful parts of France. 

O’Callaghan explains that Basque people “definitely don’t over-do it on the work side of things” and he has embraced the ”chilled-out approach to life”. His language skills are coming on well, helped by a passion for French in his school days, and his fellow Irishmen help any times he’s struggling.

Hooker Scannell, the younger brother of Munster’s Niall and Rory, and scrum-half Hart also signed for Biarritz last year.

Scannell moved in with O’Callaghan – “I’m about 20 years older than him but it seems to be working!” jokes the back row – and the Irish trio gather to watch their former team-mates in action whenever they can.

Moving into the second season of his two-year contract, O’Callaghan is hopeful of helping Biarritz to achieve their goal of promotion into the Top 14 as he delights in his new lease of life in France.

For now, he feels like he’s in the right place at the right time. 

“My last two years with Munster under Johann van Graan, I probably wasn’t playing that much. I had a couple of injuries that were unfortunately typical but it was time to go really.

“I don’t have any regrets about not leaving earlier. I’m 30 now and I feel in good shape with so much more to give. This move happened at the right time but I got such a good grounding in Munster. Everything I learned in Munster brought me to this point.”

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Murray Kinsella

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