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It started out as a move to the Pro D2 but James Coughlan might be part of rugby's next galacticos

Pau are recruiting heavily ahead of next season and Coughlan is playing as well as ever.

Coughlan is contracted to Pau until 2016 but has the option of a third year.
Coughlan is contracted to Pau until 2016 but has the option of a third year.
Image: Billy Stickland/INPHO

RICHIE MCCAW IS the latest superstar to be linked with a move to Pau. A few months ago it was Paul O’Connell.

And a couple of weeks back the French club announced that Conrad Smith – probably the most dazzling 13 not initialed BOD to play in the last ten years – will be arriving after the World Cup.

If you are a supporter of Pau, who are currently leading the Pro D2 by 17 points and thus almost certain of a Top 14 place for next season, you’re in dreamland.

Every trip to the boulangerie for your pain au chocolat, your café au lait and your copy of L’Equipe must be filled with suspense as you wait to see who your hometown team are going to have their eye on next.

But it is not just the fans who are loving the upturn in Pau’s fortunes. James Coughlan joined the club from Munster last summer and has been a key cog in an almost unstoppable freight train that has won 16 of 20 games in a league that usually operates on a ‘Home games? Yes please, Away games? No thanks’ basis.

Just last week the Corkman picked up both the man of the match award and a try (the first score in the video below) in the 26-3 win over Massy, which is the sort of performance that has become Pau’s calling card this season.

Source: Section Paloise Béarn Pyrénées/YouTube

Coughlan and his wife wanted to experience something new with their three young children and after former Munster assistant Simon Mannix was appointed Pau head coach, he tried to convince his player to join him.

“When I spoke to Simon and the owners I knew there was quality there,” Coughlan said.

“They had been in the playoff semi-finals for the last few years but they just couldn’t get over the hump. But Jesus yeah, it has gone very well for me down here so far.”

An Irishman moving to one of the wealthy French clubs is basically rugby treason today but besides a bit of stick in the Munster dressing room Coughlan’s move has gone well.

“I remember Donnacha Ryan was slagging me a good bit but he signed a new IRFU deal not too long ago so he has plenty of money himself,” Coughlan laughs.

The case of Coughlan going to France is drastically different to a frontline international like Johnny Sexton moving away. At 34, the back row is nearing the end of his career so the prospect of experiencing a different culture was enticing.

However, naturally there were some difficulties in not knowing the language.

“I did French for my Leaving Cert but I am back learning it again now,” he said.

“But at the beginning it was difficult because you have to sort out cars, a bank account and insurance – and it’s all in a different language. But the club have been great and they send someone out with you to get everything sorted so we are settling in now. If the rugby had gone a bit pear-shaped it might not have been so easy.”

But the rugby has gone the opposite to pear-shaped (whatever shape that is) and the buzz around town is huge in a place where the cliche of the passionate local fan definitely applies.

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Coughlan mentions the special atmosphere the home supporters generate in the 13,000 seater Stade du Hameau as one of the best things about playing in France but the league has its charms as well.

The Pro D2 has a bit of a reputation for being very… well this video probably explains it better.

Source: wooloomula/YouTube

The method of rucking is often akin the to the children’s song ‘Head, Shoulder, Knees and Toes’ but Coughlan says the quota of melees isn’t that much different to when he would travel with Munster.

“I haven’t been involved in any more dust-ups than usual,” Coughlan said.

“When I used to travel with Munster everyone wanted to kick the crap out of you anyway so there’s nothing new there. We try to win the fight up front first and I think the reason we’ve done so well so far is because we have done that most of the time.”

Coughlan stressed that the squad’s focus was still on the Pro D2 – ‘rugby has a nice way of kicking you in the ass if you get too big for yourself’ –  but with such a nice cushion he admitted that it was tough not to daydream about running out against Toulon and Clermont.

The squad does have Top 14 talent because besides the addition of All Black Smith, they also have French veteran Damien Traille pulling the strings in the backline.

Coughlan will be joined by former Munster team-mate Sean Dougall at Pau next season and while Simon Mannix hasn’t been texting him with his transfer wish-list, he’s confident his coach will bring in a few more big guns to help them compete in the Top 14.

“It’s a great signing and it shows where the club is at right now,” Coughlan.

“But we need to make sure that when he arrives we aren’t struggling at the bottom of the table. I haven’t spoken to Simon about it but I presume he is working on getting a few more guys in. I talked to Sean Dougall after he signed and told him about the area but I haven’t spoken to any other Irish guys about coming over.”

Strange as it is to say, there is actually a bit of an ex-pat community growing in the Pro D2. With such a finite number of contracts in Ireland it makes sense for guys to drop down a division with the hope of winning promotion.

Coughlan says there is a bit of camaraderie among the Irish guys even when they are competing with each other and he enjoys having a chat with old friends after a hard-fought battle.

“I always have a chat after a game,” Coughlan said.

“It was great after we played Perpignan to catch up properly with Lifeimi Mafi and I had a coffee with Denis Fogarty and his wife. Then there is Jeremy Davidson at Auriliac and Eoghan Hickey at Massy. It’s nice to meet up with these guys.”

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