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Home and away: Paul Warwick on Munster glory, chaos in France and one day returning to Ireland

Maurice Brosnan catches up with the former Connacht and Munster favourite in Australia.

Image: Dan Sheridan/INPHO

THE GATHERING CREW behind the airline desk looked at him with a mix of incredulity and irritation.

There was a time when Paul Warwick was convinced he would never leave Queensland.

Now he was standing in Heathrow airport struggling to explain why he had travelled halfway around the world to play rugby.

His destination was further west, but first he had to convince them to let him on the plane without a visa.

“I was told ‘we will sort out all of that when you get here,’ just get here. I was so naïve mate; this was my first big move. So, I got to Heathrow and they asked where is your visa. ‘I don’t have one.’

“Why are you going? ‘To play rugby.’ There was a big back and forth, I spent five hours waiting for everything to come through. I distinctly remember sitting in the airport, when I got permission to go, I was sitting in those airport seats back-to-back. Three old country Irish guys were behind me. I was listening to them speak and could not understand a single word.

“I started shitting myself. What have you done here?”

At the time, fellow Australian Andrew Farley was Connacht captain. Galway might as well have been on the other side of the moon as far as Warwick was concerned. His hometown of Brisbane had been an insulated bubble. Rugby league was the dominant code, the fleetfooted five-eight was an underage prodigy.

He joined the Broncos shortly after leaving school, but his pathway was blocked by a plethora of State of Origin players. With his long-perceived path to the top, Warwick had to improvise. He spent some time with the Reds, bounced around on the Sevens circuit until finally Farley reached out. Connacht needed a ten. Was he interested?

First things first, where exactly is Connacht?

He landed in the middle of Race Week and enjoyed an eventful baptism. When it came to rugby, Michael Bradley was head coach and had watched enough VHS footage to know what Warwick could do. While they struggled in the league, some big wins over French opposition in the Challenge Cup saw the Westerners reach the semi-finals and the versatile Wallaby finished as the competition’s top point scorer.

paul-warwick-2142005 Warwick in Galway in 2005. Source: INPHO

In Galway he found a culture and a system the likes of which he never encountered and struggled to comprehend. A club in stasis, trying to shed the shadow of the chopping block that they faced just two years previous. For players it was a springboard and nothing more.

“It was just a platform for people to go elsewhere. There was never any solidarity amongst anyone or real ambition. My recollection, even the Irish guys, it was an individual approach. This is my stage to go to Munster or Leinster.

“When I arrived and got to know the system, I was shocked.”

After three years, an opportunity down south manifested. In Galway he met his future wife while his play went from strength to strength. Both were satisfied with a move to Limerick.

Warwick is quick to stress, this was not a financial decision. Those sorts of choices would come later in life. For now, it was all about what was best for his career.

“When I first went, I signed a one-year contract and that was fair enough. Very little money. It was just an opportunity for me.

“It worked out quite well and Eric (Elwood) was leaving at the time. They signed me for two years then. They wanted to re-sign me again, they matched the Munster money. It wasn’t a financial decision to leave. It came down to the fact Tony McGahan was my high school teacher. We had a relationship since I was 16.

“I drove down to meet Declan Kidney in Cork. Jim Williams came as well as an Aussie. I just wanted to be involved in a big team. I saw it as a great opportunity and still be close to where I was.”

What happened next needs no explanation. A period of triumph and silverware the likes of Warwick love revisiting while Munster fans are almost sick of hearing about it. Every nostalgic return is laced with the bitter reality that this remains the last time the province won a trophy. Memories of past success that underpin current failings.

Over a decade. Even now he struggles to make sense of that drought. When he left, they seemed to have all the pieces to progress. The coaching was expert, the squad was strong and their style diverse. The Australian still recalls watching a 19-year-old stand up as a leader as they toiled in the wind and rain against the Dragons. It was obvious to him that day that a young Peter O’Mahony had been inspired by the senior group.

mick-odriscoll-paul-warwick-lifeimi-mafi-and-rua-tipoki Mick O'Driscoll, Paul Warwick, Lifeimi Mafi and Rua Tipoki in Boston in 2008. Source: Cathal Noonan/INPHO

In training, nothing scared him more as a ten than looking across at a spritely Keith Earls in the opposing centre. “The scariest player I have ever seen,” he chuckles. “If he drifted down your channel, he was uncatchable. He’d make a fool out of you.”

In hindsight, the one thing that stands out was the power of the group. They were a forceful unit. A sense of comradery every coach dreams their team would have but struggles to instill.

“The coaches there, while mostly knowledgeable, I’m not taking out of school here, but I don’t think Declan’s strength is tactical nous. For me he was a man manager. The figurehead. To be honest, I’d say the same thing about Michael Cheika at Stade. He wasn’t about tactics; he was a motivator of men. He had our respect and you wanted to play for him rather than teaching you loads.

“Being a coach myself, different teams needed different things. That Stade team was full of superstars, so you didn’t need to upskill. At Munster it was player-led. The leadership group were the rocks. Everyone respected Paulie and Ronan. People knew their job and did it really well. I didn’t try to do more than my job. My job was to facilitate space and communicate.

“In my time there, there was never any complacency. There was someone ready to take your shirt if you didn’t turn up. It was the culture, don’t let the jersey down. It was fantastic but all player driven.”

Highlights? Where do you start. Scoring every point as they secured a historic win over Australia, obviously. The 2011 Celtic Cup final victory was sweet for several reasons. It served as his last farewell while also affording him the opportunity to win alongside one of his closest friends on the team, Keith Earls.

All the same, when it comes to Paul Warwick one game in particular protrudes prominently in the minds of the Thomond Park faithful. Every few months without fail, his Man of the Match performance against the Ospreys, complete with two long range drop goals, pops up on social media.

In his mind, it is that game that symbolises the essence of the Munster mentality.

“It was a really special day for me. Probably the best game I ever played. To have the opportunity to do it on a stage like that helped me springboard to a few different places. I don’t know, you don’t go out thinking I am going to kick these. I guess it is a case of opportunities present themselves.

“I made some breaks early and my confidence was high. Bullet proof. I can do what I want. It is a wonderful feeling. You run on the field for Munster, it sounds arrogant, but it wasn’t an arrogance. It was just a superior confidence. There is no way we will lose. There is no way these guys beat us at our best. That is a really powerful mindset to be in. To know you have done all this hard work and you are pretty bloody good. I guess that mentality, you just think you won’t ever lose.”

munster-players-congratulate-paul-warwick Warwick is congratulated after scoring a try against Ospreys. Source: Morgan Treacy/INPHO

Then there were chaotic times. Swapping Limerick for Paris seemed appealing. Yet this was a different era of French rugby. Chaos and controversy were commonplace. His first taste came within days of signing.

“When I decided to finally leave, the money was better, but your expenses were greater. I was offered a contract to stay, but it was one-year versus a three-year. I was 30 and wanted security for my family. We’d two kids. I wanted to challenge myself a bit more.

“The volatility in France was mental. I played in the final against Leinster in 2011. We moved all our furniture to France the following week. Then flew from Paris to Australia for a holiday. We are in this apartment, all set up and people started contacting me, ‘are you guys okay?’

“Because Max (Guazzini) has sold Stade Francis. They might not have a buyer. We just started shitting ourselves. We’ve moved our whole lives to France and we’re in Australia, I didn’t know if my contract would be honoured.

“I had Cheika’s number and keep calling him, no answer. Again and again, no answer. It was really stressful. I think Michael was involved in negotiating the finances and new owners. He didn’t communicate that until everything was sorted.”

There was little let up. He’d moved from the coliseum to the circus.

“I remember it like it was yesterday. I arrived at the end-of-season function after the first one year, I think we came sixth. It was this outdoor venue, all the French guys sitting at one end and all the foreigners at the other. ‘Hey everyone, how are we?’

“They said ‘have you heard?’ Heard what. ‘Cheika has been fired overnight.’ He’d been taken down by the French assistant coaches. A couple of the French players were involved because they didn’t like how he challenged them. You just have to go back to that Connacht mentality, turn up do your best and hope you stay or get some security elsewhere.

“I think Michael was adamant he could supersede the politics, be the conduit and bring everyone together. He was fluent in both languages and had success with Leinster, but the politics was on another level. So much of their rugby is based on emotion. Decisions on and off the field.

“You might have an owner come in and blow up at half time while the coach is talking. He shrinks to the corner while the owner gives you a mouthful and walks out. You wouldn’t know what he said because our French wasn’t great. All we knew was that it wasn’t good.”

Now Warwick is back in Brisbane, where it all began. Tony McGahan lives fifteen minutes up the road. As we speak the pair are making ready to team up coaching a local club side. Former Australia captain Ben Mowen is head coach. Warwick will take charge of the backs and attack.

paul-warwick The Aussie moved from Munster to Michael Cheika's Stade Francais side. Source: Lorraine O'Sullivan/INPHO

He loves coaching, although does not long for a career in it. Enduring scars from his experiences in Europe ensure the guaranteed insecurity is a major obstacle. That period of his life left him with several lessons. One of which means he is likely to return to Ireland one day, hopefully this time with a visa in tow.

“I harbour no ambitions to be a pro coach or go down that path so for me, it is nice to coach at school level and I’m sure I will enjoy the challenge but after that French volatility I know about all the sacrifices made by partners. That would be triple as a coach. Moving them around and everything, it isn’t right. It is better having a stable profession. If we decide to ever move back to Ireland, I could replicate what I do here there. Work for a school, teach and coach.

paul-warwick-with-his-family Source: Dan Sheridan/INPHO

“Having been on the other side of the world myself, I am sympathetic to my wife and what she goes through being over here for me. I am 40 now. You worry about your parents as they get on. Just not being there, we understand how good we have it here lifestyle wise.

“I would be naïve to think we won’t end up in Ireland at some point in time. It is only fair.”


Source: The42 Rugby Weekly/SoundCloud

Gavan Casey and Murray Kinsella take a break from eating and drinking to chat about some interesting contract news in Irish rugby.

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Maurice Brosnan

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