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'It was a massive opportunity but I knew it was a life-changer. I've no regrets'

22-year-old Cork man Eoghan Barrett has been making excellent progress with Pau in France.

FIRST TOUCHES IN professional rugby don’t come much better than the one Cork man Eoghan Barrett enjoyed on his debut for French club Pau back in January of 2020.

Literally seconds after coming onto the pitch in a Challenge Cup game against Italian side Calvisano, the Irish wing honed in on a loose pass, scooped the ball up, and raced clear from 80 metres out for an eye-catching try.

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Pau later revealed that Barrett hit a top speed of 33.2 km/h as he showed off his pace in finishing that chance from long range.

“I actually felt like I could have had one or two more in that game but that was being greedy!” says 22-year-old Barrett now as he reflects on that debut, giving a little insight into the hunger that has driven his rise in French rugby.

“It was an amazing day and one I won’t forget for a long time.”

Barrett was still in the Pau academy at that stage but he’s now on a senior professional deal through until the summer of 2023. He has played 12 games in the Top 14, scoring three tries, has six European appearances to his name, and is now JIFF [joueurs issus de filières de formation] qualified for coming through the Pau academy, which is crucial due to French rugby quotas.

Barrett first moved to France in 2018 soon after finishing his Leaving Cert at Christian Brothers College, Cork. The connection in Pau was fellow CBC graduate James Coughlan, who has since moved on from the club and is now an assistant coach in Toulon.

“James got wind that there wasn’t going to be a place for me in the Munster academy and so he offered me a deal here quite early on,” explains Barrett, who has strong rugby roots.

His dad, Kevin, is a huge Ballincollig RFC man, while his uncle is ex-Munster player and current IRFU vice-president Greg Barrett. There are more ties to Cork Constitution FC and Munster, so the Barretts are a rugby-mad family.

Eoghan started off in Ballincollig and then went on to play in CBC, where he won a Junior Cup but wasn’t really seen as a standout prospect until sixth year.

eoghan-barrett Barrett playing for CBC in 2018. Source: Laszlo Geczo/INPHO

“I was very much a late bloomer,” he says. “I loved my rugby all the way up but other guys might have been bigger. The playing field levels out more at 17 and 18. I got this sudden burst of confidence and it just grew exponentially.”

He was picked in the Ireland U18 Sevens squad in 2017 as they went to Germany and won the European Championships, playing alongside Connacht’s Oran McNulty and Ulster’s Aaron Sexton in that team.

Soon after helping CBC into the final of the 2018 Munster Schools Senior Cup, where they lost to Ben Healy’s Glenstal, Barrett started on the wing for the Ireland U19s in a clash against Japan, playing with the likes of Ryan Baird, Scott Penny, and Healy.

Barrett featured for a makeshift Munster squad one weekend at a 7s tournament in 2017 and took part in some skills sessions run by the province in Cork, but he never actually got a chance to properly play for his province.

“Unfortunately, I never got to put on the jersey at underage level but I managed to sneak into that Ireland U19s squad,” he says.

“My year in Munster would have been the Grand Slam winners [with the Ireland U20s in 2019] so in fairness, there were some very good players occupying the same position as me.

“I knew these were boys who were going to get into the academy ahead of me and that was fair. I knew at the time they were better than me, so I knew there wasn’t going to be any space.”

Barrett may have been involved in the Munster sub-academy if he had stayed in Ireland but the offer to join Pau’s academy on a three-year deal along with his fellow CBC player, lock/back row Ben Roche, was impossible to resist.

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Not that it was easy for the then 18-year-old to get his head around moving abroad, particularly given that he had been through a tough year with his mother unwell at that time, keeping on top of his studies in school, and rugby blowing up for him.

“It was a massive opportunity but I knew it was a life-changer,” says Barrett.

“I was committing to moving to France for three years, leaving behind friends and family, and taking a year break from starting college, which was quite a big decision.

“It was a very difficult decision but looking back now, I’ve absolutely no regrets.”

Barrett always had a bit of wanderlust, so he dove head-first into the new experience and embraced his French language lessons, but he still needed plenty of support in that first year away.

His girlfriend, Ciara, flew out to surprise him on the day the Leaving Cert results came out, his family and friends were in constant contact, while Coughlan “went above and beyond for me and Ben, making sure we fitted in perfectly here.”

It helped that there was an Irish diaspora at the club. Barrett had known Roche from day one in CBC [Roche returned to Ireland after a year to play with UCC], while the Section Paloise squad included ex-Munster men Paddy Butler, Dave Foley, and Sean Dougall.

Former Munster analysts Elliot Corcoran – who is now back with the Irish province – and Paddy Sullivan, now with Montpellier, were also at Pau back then, so Barrett had lots of Irish support.

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Barrett laughs now when he thinks about how he looked at his friends’ videos of college nights out back home with some envy in those early days. 

It helped that he immediately loved Pau, a quaint town that sits at the foot of the Pyrenees in southwest France, just an hour’s drive from the beach, with plenty of sunshine and occasional flurries of rain that remind him of home.

Ciara moved out to join him in Pau permanently when Covid restrictions eased and she’s now making cakes in one of the big cafés in the town.

“She’s unbelievable at baking, which is unfortunate for me because I’m always eating them,” says Barrett with a laugh.

She has finished her college degree online since, while Barrett is now into his third year of a four-year Commerce degree through NUI Galway. The pair of them have fallen for French culture and also enjoy getting to learn about the backgrounds of his Australia, Kiwi, Samoan, and Tongan team-mates at Pau.

The diversity of the Top 14 club’s squad also helps when it comes to rugby, exposing Barrett to lots of different ways of thinking about the game.

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Now into his fourth season in France, Barrett has improved hugely since arriving with what he admits were very raw skills back in 2018. Training with and being coached by the likes of All Blacks legends like Conrad Smith and Ben Smith in Pau over recent years has been brilliant for his game.

Sullivan was also a particularly important influence when Barrett first landed, and he says they laugh now when they think of the level his passing skills were at straight out of school.

“It definitely not up to scratch,” says Barrett. “It was like a golf swing I taught myself, there was absolutely no technique there. I spent hours with Paddy working on it. I couldn’t even spin pass off my left side.

“I worked very hard on it and now I actually prefer passing off my left side.”

FPbALRqXsA0uRrl Former Ballincollig RFC men James Cronin and Eoghan Barrett after a recent Top 14 game. Source: Ballincollig RFC

Having served his team with Pau’s espoirs [U23 team] during his initial time with the club, Barrett is now a full-fledged member of the senior squad.

His initial three-year academy contract was due to expire last summer and Barrett only extended that deal at a late stage, with an announcement coming in May 2021 that he had penned a new two-year extension.

“It was a major relief,” admits Barrett, who took time to find his best form again after the Covid-19 break back in 2020. 

“I managed to get two or three games in the Challenge Cup, managed to impress there, then I got a few games in the Top 14. In my very first Top 14 game, we beat Stade Français at home after going down to 14 men. Then I got my first try against Clermont.

“So when I signed the deal, it was a major, major relief. There were times I was afraid I would be packing my bags and going back to Ireland with not a lot to show for it.”

That new deal was supposed to involve another season in the academy, but Barrett was pushed onto senior status midway through this campaign as head coach Sébastien Piqueronies liked what he saw.

Barrett is predominantly a wing but started at outside centre in the club’s European defeat to Edinburgh earlier this month, happy to have a few strings to his bow.

He has made five starts in the Top 14 this season – recently playing against fellow former Ballincollig RFC minis player James Cronin, who’s now with Biarritz – and with Pau sitting in 10th at present, hopes to help them finish their league campaign strongly.

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He’s still a huge Munster fan and is thrilled to see former CBC team-mates Scott Buckley, Cian Hurley, and Mark Donnelly making strides with the province alongside some of his former rivals like Healy and Alex Kendellen.

Before he re-signed with Pau last year, there was some interest from Munster but Barrett is very happy where he is for now.

“I spoke briefly last year about the potential of coming home, what that looked like, but then the contract offer came here and I thought it would be best for my rugby to stay out here for the time being and see what the future holds,” he says.

“I’m very happy here, I feel I’m progressing, I’ve got some big games under my belt. If conversations happen again at home, we’ll cross that bridge when we get back to it.”

About the author:

Murray Kinsella

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