THE CONNEMARA IRISH pub on Rue Valéry Meunier in Pau had its very own Munster supporters club last season.
It was a two-man outfit that gathered to watch the southern province in action, but the numbers have swollen for the 2015/16 campaign.
James Coughlan will be joined on the pitch by former Munster teammates Paddy Butler and Sean Dougall in Pau this season, while Cork man Elliot Corcoran continues his important work behind the scenes.
Performance analyst Corcoran made the move to the French club last summer, at the same time as Coughlan joined the revolution in the southwest of France under former Munster backs coach Simon Mannix, now Pau’s sporting director.
Newly-promoted to the Top 14, the high-profile signings of men like All Blacks Conrad Smith and Colin Slade, Scotland prop Euan Murray and others suggest that Pau can make an impression on their return to the top flight after a nine-year absence.
With the likes of multinational oil company Total on board, Pau are not lacking in investors and the buzz around the club who ran away with last season’s Pro D2 title continues to grow.
We’ve recruited very well in fairness, a few people were surprised,” says Corcoran. “Getting guys like Colin Slade is massive. It’s a mad, passionate town and they love their rugby.
“They’re delighted to be back in the Top 14 and there have been huge season ticket sales already, so I think if we have a good start we could do very well. We’re going to try and be competitive in the Challenge Cup too, not just throwing out an academy team.”
Corcoran is a Rebel by birth, playing rugby in his formative years with Cork Con and at school with CBC before hanging up his boots at the age of 22 to move into the world of analysis and work as a youth development officer within the Cork rugby scene.
A diploma in rugby at Coláiste Stiofáin Naofa brought him into contact with then-Munster academy manager Hamish Adams, strengthening a relationship with the province that resulted in him being employed as an assistant to performance analyst George Murray in 2009.
That’s where Corcoran found himself developing over the course of five seasons, learning from some notable rugby minds.
“I also did analysis for Cork Con for two and a half years, so I was working with Brian Walsh and Brian Hickey” says Corcoran. “Brian Walsh is now with Munster [as attack coach] and Brian Hickey was with Munster before, I learned an awful lot from them in terms of rugby knowledge.
“Then I had a very good working relationship with Jason Holland, who I thought was a brilliant coach, Laurie Fisher as well. They were both Cork-based with me so I learned huge amounts from those guys.
“Then you’ve Anthony Foley, Simon and Rob [Penney] when they came in. The players themselves, it was like excellent to be working with Paul O’Connell and Ronan O’Gara, those guys. My knowledge of rugby kept getting better every week.”
Having worked as an assistant for that period, initially doing the valuable “donkey work” of chopping up the footage of games and gradually moving on to more analytical duties, Corcoran felt ready to take on a head analyst role.
He applied for a number of positions elsewhere, but the growing competitiveness of the field meant some clubs didn’t even offer interviews. In Ireland, meanwhile, the likes of Murray, Leinster’s Emmet Farrell and Ireland’s Mervyn Murphy were well-established and going nowhere for the foreseeable future.
And so it was “perfect timing” that Mannix landed in Pau after his departure from Munster last summer. The Kiwi coach knew all about Corcoran’s ability and further potential as an analyst, having also been based in Cork.
“You’d always have a good relationship with the Cork lads because you’re with them the whole time,” says Corcoran. “In his second year [2013/14], myself and Simon had a very close relationship and we’d chat after every game.
“He maybe saw that I could do more than what I was doing with Munster, he saw something in me and it’s worked out well.”
Chief to the continuation and growth of the relationship has been Mannix’s trust in Corcoran, his willingness to allow his analyst to move closer to the coaching team and bring tactical contributions to the table.
The Irishman is not there simply to chop up games on Sportscode; his role involves identifying opposition attacking trends and defensive weaknesses, as well as suggesting tweaks to Pau’s own tactics.
Such is the trend in the professional game; the analyst is increasingly influential.
“Simon said that to me when he hired me: ‘I don’t want you to be just a coder where you’re cutting up clips for the sake of cutting up clips. I want you to almost be more like an assistant coach.’
He gave me the freedom to say what I think and that’s been great, because as an assistant before you didn’t have as much of that. This type of analysis is what I wanted to get into.”
Corcoran’s intensely busy week begins immediately post-match on a Saturday, coding the game and analysing it from a team perspective, prepping for the Monday review. Sunday is dedicated to individual analysis for each of the Pau players.
The week is a whirlwind of recording and analysing on-pitch training sessions, presenting to and meeting with the coaching staff, as well as turning his analytical attention to the opposition Pau will meet in two, sometimes even three, weeks’ time.
He admits it’s “full-on,” but Pau have secured a right-hand man to ease the pressure on Corcoran this season. No surprises, another Munster man is joining the club with Paddy O’Sullivan coming on board after an internship with the southern province.
France’s reputation in the field of analysis is as being some way behind their Irish and English counterparts, something Corcoran has learned first hand.
“Before I accepted the job I rang Ronan O’Gara and asked would it be a good move for me,” says the former Cork Con man. “He thought it would be a great move because analysis isn’t huge in France and if you did well you could make a name for yourself.
“Talking to players and coaches from here, they said their analysis was pretty much non-existent before last season. They used to watch their games afterwards but it was just a DVD of the whole game, likewise with the opposition.”
Several Irish players are famed for their hunger in terms of analysis work, with Paul O’Connell particularly diligent in covering every possible lineout eventuality in his preparatory video analysis.
For French players, the native laissez-faire approach to rugby meant many of them had very little experience of analysis at all.
One thing Simon told me coming over here is ‘You can do what you want with it, but I’ll just advise you not to go with too much too soon,’” says Corcoran. “With the French player, if you do too much with them at the start and they lose interest, you’ll lose them forever.
“We went quite basic at the start and, I suppose, drip-fed them with it and let them want more. In fairness, all the staff and all the players really bought into it and there were so many cases that players were coming to us asking could we do this and that.
“We kicked on and started adding bits and pieces. Now we tape all the training sessions and you’d always see the players straight in afterwards watching it.”
“Are they doing as much analysis as Paul O’Connell? I don’t know about that yet, but they’re getting there!”
Away from rugby, Corcoran admits that there were tough times during the first year in France, especially as his knowledge of the language started and finished with bonjour.
That said, he and wife, Julie, are now fully settled in and their first child, Ollie, was born four and a half months ago. With Pau having completed their third week of pre-season at this stage of the summer, Corcoran jokes that temperatures of close to 40°C have called for the factor 50 suncream.
It’s a great place and the lifestyle is completely different to back home, it’s very laidback. It was a big decision but it was a good decision. My wife and I are delighted.”
As for Pau, with Corcoran continuing his fine work on the analysis front, O’Sullivan as his assistant, Coughlan a totemic figure in the pack and Butler and Dougall adding to the back-row riches, don’t be surprised to see Pau eventually playing in a red jersey.
“James and I had a little Cork convention last year,” says Corcoran. “We used to go down to the Irish pub and watch the odd Munster game, which was great. Now we have Paddy and Sean coming over, and we’ve hired Paddy O’Sullivan too.
“They’re over now, so we’re taking over!”