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familiar territory

Irish women plotting inside job in French rugby heartland

Paula Fitzpatrick knows what to expect this weekend having played with Toulouse for the past three months.

IRELAND BACK-ROWER Paula Fitzpatrick is operating behind enemy lines.

And the Toulouse flanker is hoping her Top 8 experience will help her national team claim a famous win in France on Saturday night.

Tom Tierney’s reigning champions edged their Gallic neighbours on points difference to win the Six Nations last season, despite going down to them 10-5 at home, which adds another edge to the clash between the two in Perpignan.

Fitzpatrick has warned her Irish colleagues to expect a free-flowing game against some highly-skilled opposition.

Former Ireland men’s international Trevor Brennan, a man who knows the city in France’s south better than most, was quick to offer Fitzpatrick and her Ireland back-row colleague, Heather O’Brien, some advice upon their arrival three months ago.

“Rucks are a big no-no,” Fitzpatrick said.

“One of the first things we were told when we went over there, by Trevor Brennan actually, was that if you are being pushed into touch, just throw the ball and somebody will be there. The last thing they want is for there to be a breakdown in play.

“It is very skilful over there. A lot of players in Ireland wouldn’t have taken up the sport until they got to college whereas they are playing over there since they were six years old; so their skill levels are very high.”

It’s a very high standard. The skill is the key thing. They don’t focus so much on game management and strategy.

“It is more about expression and very French in that it is about playing passion more than anything else. You kind of play as you feel.”

Fitzpatrick is making the most of her time in France; her rugby is improving and weekly training sessions with the men have been enlightening.

“I’ve been over there for three months so far and playing in the Top 8. We’re getting to play against these players week-in and week-out and they’ll be playing with this French team at the weekend as well. We’ll be very familiar with them.

“It is definitely very different and you would want to have a lot of self-motivation to go and do it because training is very much based on you. I have found it very beneficial.

“We have had the opportunity to train with the boys’ team in Toulouse as well so I feel like that has helped me a lot in terms of the speed they play.”

James Crombie / INPHO James Crombie / INPHO / INPHO

But it hasn’t all been plain sailing. It’s far from the life of a professional athlete, while language barriers and the weight of commercial interests in Dublin also have to be juggled.

“There is no contract. It’s not professional or anything.

“Our accommodation is taken care of but we both (Fitzpatrick and O’Brien) have businesses at home so we work still from over there. We get the opportunity to put training above work over there, I suppose.”

While the style of play and the skill levels have been the most obvious differences, she was also amazed by the size of the crowds the women’s game attracts in France.

“There is probably more support for it over there,” she said.

“It is growing all the time in Ireland and that is fantastic but France has a much bigger playing base, especially in the south of France.

“They will support any rugby there, they love it. There are about 40 volunteers involved with the club who just come out and get breakfasts and lunches ready and that kind of thing, physiotherapy and all the coaches involved with the club would be of a very high standard.”

But for all the positives around the women’s game in France, there is one thing they are sorely missing — the title of Six Nations champions.

And Ireland, having made an excellent start to their title defence with a 21-3 win against Wales last weekend, have plenty of reasons for optimism.

An experienced pack and some exciting new backline talent seemed to gel almost instantly. There is no mistaking the positive atmosphere around the camp, even ahead of a trip to France, a destination where Ireland’s women have traditionally struggled.

With four of Fitzpatrick’s Toulouse colleagues lining up for the opposition, and plenty of locals making the two-hour trip to Perpignan, a victory would be even sweeter for the Irish insiders.

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