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'I’ve seen guys spit at the ref, seen a fella head-butted 60 seconds into a game'

Life in the world’s craziest league has been fun for former Ireland player Robin Copeland – and he has warned Leinster to be on guard against La Rochelle on Sunday.

Copeland launches The Big Rugby Run.
Copeland launches The Big Rugby Run.
Image: Dan Sheridan/INPHO

IN FRENCH RUGBY, old clichés die hard. Any week an Irish team meets a French one, you’ll read a lot about Gallic flair before being constantly reminded that we just don’t know which French side will turn up.

So we’ll skip all that for once. Instead, there’s a different theme to examine. The PROD2 is commonly regarded as the craziest league in world rugby. Brawls, bites and bollockings – referees getting lifted off the ground by players in try celebrations; nothing you see should surprise you.

Yet despite being forewarned, Robin Copeland has been shocked. For context, Copeland is 33; he’s travelled before, playing for championship sides Plymouth Albion and Rotherham; enjoying the best spell of his career with Cardiff Blues before returning home to feature for both Munster and Connacht, winning an Irish cap in the process.

In other words, he’s no innocent abroad. And yet life at Soyaux Angoulême XV Charente – a club located on ‘the balcony of France’s south-west’ – is different to anything he had ever experienced in his rugby life.

“Every game for the first 15 weeks of this season, there was at least one or two yellows and a red,” Copeland said. “They have this system where if a player gets three yellows in a season then they get a two-week ban, so refs were throwing out cards left, right and centre hoping that it would solve things. But it didn’t.

“In one game, one of our guys head-butted an opposing player 60 seconds into the match; he got sent off. I’ve seen guys spit at the referee, stupid shit like that. I’ve heard players say ‘you’re the worst referee in the league, that’s why you’ll never go to a higher level’.

“All the while you are asking them, ‘what are you doing? Will you stop? Have you never played rugby before?’ But the French players just shrug: ‘I do what I want, I don’t care’. Some players are just hot-headed and passionate; it’s hard to get that streak out of them and I’m not so sure you would want to eradicate it completely.

“A player’s passion can be their strength and their undoing at times. In Ireland we’re all about sticking to the process whereas here the attitude is, try things and if it doesn’t work, we can try something else. There’s more freedom, less structure. It’s different.”

So is life in general. If ‘Ireland feels a little more like a rat race’ than France; living in Angouleme has taught him to appreciate the world around him a little more. “Nothing opens here on a Sunday; it is the government saying to people, you have all this public space, go and enjoy your life.”

He is enjoying his, despite the discomfort of arriving into a country in lockdown, just his girlfriend, Harriet, and dog, Kobe, for company. At times the isolation was challenging but when restrictions were eased he got to travel, to Biarritz one weekend, Bordeaux the next, then La Rochelle

Ah, La Rochelle, home of ROG, hosts this weekend of Leinster in the Champions Cup semi-final.

Round these parts, everyone expects Leinster to win, pointing to the differences in pedigree between the two clubs, Leinster winning this tournament four times; La Rochelle never making it beyond a quarter-final until now. Plus, there is the intriguing sub-plot of La Rochelle’s O’Gara going up against his old sparring partners.

ronan-ogara O'Gara has made a big impact at La Rochelle. Source: Dave Winter/INPHO

“You can’t emphasise ROG’s impact on La Rochelle enough,” says Copeland. “They are pretty lucky to have him and while the experience he is getting is invaluable to him, the club are the bigger winners out of the arrangement.

“He has been a cultural figure in Ireland for some time but he has grown that persona now in France. They (La Rochelle) are a force to be reckoned with.”

Still, it’s Leinster they are up against – unbeatable in the Pro14.

“The perception of Leinster here in France is that they are clinical; that they don’t make mistakes, they work smartly,” says Copeland. “However, I do feel the French clubs have stepped up in that regard in recent years.

“Structurally they are a lot better; they don’t make as many mistakes and they still have players who can do magical things and score from anywhere. The way La Rochelle have been playing, Leinster will probably be under the pump on Sunday. Before, Leinster could just outsmart teams whereas now, French clubs are a lot better coached and conditioned.

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“In fact I’d go as far to say that there are three or four teams in France who have potentially leapfrogged Leinster over the last year or two.”

champions-cup-trophy Copeland thinks French sides have improved since Leinster's last European title. Source: Inpho/Billy Stickland

Speaking at Rugby Players Ireland’s tackle your feelings campaign, Copeland also addressed the mental health challenges he has faced in his career.

“It is something I’ve struggled with in the past and at the time I probably glossed over it and put on a brave face; other times I’d cry my eyes out and I didn’t know why. I learned to deal with it; I try and do something physically and mentally every day that challenges me.

“I no longer compare myself with anyone. I have not been on a stereotypical journey so I kind of realised, why should I compare myself to other people? You learn to be genuinely happy for other people when they do something rather than being jealous.

“Nobody is immune to feeling shit. Negative comments can stop you in your tracks but they can also be a real motivator. I remember someone saying I would never play for Ireland; I was told I would never get 50 professional caps in top-flight rugby. I remember thinking ‘okay I’ll prove that person wrong’.”

He succeeded. “People should never let anyone’s comments get you down.”

  • Robin Copeland was on hand to officially launch this year’s #TheBigRugbyRun, which will take place virtually on 22 May with funds raised going toward initiatives run by Tackle Your Feelings, a mental health and well-being programme run by Rugby Players Ireland. See www.thebigrugbyrun.com for more details

– First published 13.11, 29 April

About the author:

Garry Doyle

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