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'The end goal for me is definitely to come back. Munster are still my team'

Dungarvan RFC man Steve McMahon is in excellent form for Carcassonne in France’s second tier.

WHENEVER HIS OWN Pro D2 games in France don’t clash with Munster’s on the TV, Steve McMahon heads for the Irish pub in Carcassonne to support his province.

The 23-year-old is enjoying a strong first season in the second tier of professional French rugby, finding confidence and form at fullback, but Munster will always tug at his heart.

Steven McMahon McMahon at Munster training in 2016. Source: Tommy Dickson/INPHO

When McMahon fell in love with rugby as a child, he imagined himself in a Munster jersey in the future. So to progress from Dungarvan all the way into the province’s academy was special for him.

The dream abruptly ended two years into his time with the academy, when he was informed that Munster would be letting him go.

A whirlwind chain of events ended up with McMahon getting out of his comfort zone to live and play in the south of France, but a possible return to Munster in the future will always drive him.

“I told the lads in Munster when they let me go… I thanked [academy manager] Peter Malone for everything he’d done for me but I said, ‘My job now is to prove you wrong’ and the end goal for me is definitely to come back to Munster.

“I’ve known for a very long time that I wanted to be a professional rugby player but that was always a professional rugby player with Munster. Munster are still my team.”

McMahon has certainly made a fine start to his long-term project, with his performances for Carcassonne recently earning him a place in renowned rugby newspaper Midi Olympique’s Pro D2 team of the week.

The Irishman scored his third try of the season in Friday night’s impressive 52-17 win over Narbonne on what was his 16th start for the club.

Carcassonne are enjoying an excellent run of form that has lifted them off the bottom of the table and up into 13th position, and they now look safe with three rounds of the regular season still to go.

The arrival of former Toulouse and France back row Christian Labit – who also played for Carcassonne – as head coach in November transformed things, for the club and for McMahon, who was shifted to the 15 shirt and is now a key player.

“I feel that I’m back at a level of confidence that even going back to my school days, I didn’t have this level of confidence,” says McMahon.

“Christian came in and he has simplified our game plan a little bit. He took a shining to me straight away and he put me into fullback, when I had been playing mostly on the wing and in the centre.

“He told me, ‘Don’t kick the ball unless you have to. 1 v 1 is ok, you against two is ok, you against three is ok, but four is not ok – then you kick the ball!’ That makes it easier for me because as soon as the ball comes back to me, my first instinct is to go forward.”

McMahon’s girlfriend, Jessica, is now living in the picturesque Carcassonne with him but he initially moved over on his own last summer and the transition was a difficult one.

“I came over and genuinely I didn’t know two words of French, and didn’t know anyone over here. It was a massive step outside my comfort zone.”

Carcassonne have facilitated his learning of the language, with classes every week helping him get to the stage where he can express himself on the rugby pitch and also now begin to have non-rugby conversations with locals.

Former Leinster centre Eamonn Sheridan is also at Carcassonne this season, although he only arrived in August. The pair of them are now friends but McMahon feels it was better for him that there was no other Irish player at the very start – forcing him to experience France on his own at first.

Naturally enough, there have been big cultural changes for McMahon on the pitch too, with the French approach to training being far more laidback than he was accustomed to.

“You’re not put under the same amount of pressure here as you are at home with regards to a dropped ball or doing something wrong in training,” says McMahon.

“I’m used to Felix Jones at Munster saying that if a ball isn’t delivered directly into somebody’s hand, it’s not a good pass.”

But McMahon says the laissez-faire approach to training is not reflective of the intensity of math days in Pro D2.

Interestingly, he also explains that French coaches, players and supporters analyse games quite differently – something that has helped him to build confidence.

Steven McMahon McMahon in Munster colours. Source: James Crombie/INPHO

“It can be ruthless at home where you make a mistake and it might be hard to find your way back into the team.

“Here, I could come off the pitch after a game and talk to my girlfriend and my friends and say I had a bad game, I wasn’t happy with it because I didn’t catch a high ball or I missed a tackle, threw a bad pass.

“But because I’ve made two linebreaks in the game, I’m man of the match. They really focus on positives here. They don’t let the bad stuff affect them too much. That was really good for me.”

McMahon is a self-confessed homebird – “I love Ireland and I love Dungarvan” – so ending up in the south of France was never part of the pro career he imagined.

His family are from Dublin originally, but home was Dungarvan in Waterford, his dad having got a job at GlaxoSmithKline in the seaside town.

McMahon caught the rugby bug early, a co-worker of his father’s Eddie Kiely, who “lived across the fields” encouraging him to come down to Dungarvan RFC, where they were trying to grow the juvenile section of the club, sometimes with just 15 of them training on a Saturday morning.

“I can remember being in second or third class in school and when I was asked what I wanted to do, I was embarrassed to say I wanted to be a rugby player because nobody else in school played rugby at the time!” says McMahon.

His ability became evident as he graduated through Dungarvan’s underage teams, earning East Munster selection and a spot in the Munster Youths squad.

He had to leave the club when he opted to move to Rockwell College in order to play schools rugby, but he still passionately loves Dungarvan – even coaching the men’s senior team last season.

“I remember when I was moving to Rockwell for fifth year and I would have just turned 16, my last game was against Waterpark, when Jack O’Donoghue was their captain.

“I remember crying after the game and telling them it was my last game. I was so sad to have to give that up.

Steve McMahon McMahon moved to Rockwell to play schools rugby. Source: Lorraine O'Sullivan/INPHO

“They’re all super proud in Dungarvan and even when I was in the team of the week here, everyone was sharing it on Facebook. I always feel the love from Dungarvan, no matter how I’m doing.”

McMahon still wonders if he could have made it into the Munster academy without his move to Rockwell, for whom he was man of the match as a fifth year in the 2012 Munster Schools Senior Cup final win over St. Munchin’s.

But learning about rugby under coach Mark Butler in Rockwell was “like nothing I’d ever experienced before” as McMahon also had to transfer from the Munster Youth squad into the School set-up.

“Mark is a savage coach, especially for me. I’d never done a video analysis session before and suddenly we’re doing them every week, setting goals and talking about training and games in details.”

McMahon made great strides playing alongside the likes of David Johnston, Sean O’Connor and Sean McNulty, and he was also part of a Rockwell side that lost the 2013 final to Crescent College.

McMahon also played for Ireland at U19 level and earned a place in the province’s academy, although he admits to struggling when he initially came out of school and moved to Limerick. Playing his club rugby with Garryowen helped.

“Lots of the guys in Garryowen had played bits and pieces with Munster or Connacht, they’re all friends with the Munster guys, so they’re all aware of what’s going on.

“There was a real net for you to fall on and in my first two years out of school it was really tough and Garryowen always had my best interests at heart.”

During his two years with Munster’s academy, McMahon regularly trained with the senior squad. There was some frustration at not getting the game time he needed, but McMahon loved his years with the province.

The likes of S&C coaches Joe McGinley, Damien O’Donoghue and Cedric Unholz helped him, particularly when McMahon linked up with the Ireland 7s squad last season and needed to make tweaks athletically.

“What I love most about Munster is the people. Some of the senior guys would message me now and again wondering how I’m getting on. It goes to show you that Munster is really like a family and they’re willing to go beyond to help you.”

Steven McMahon McMahon has played for the Ireland 7s team. Source: Lorraine O'Sullivan/INPHO

In terms of senior influences on the pitch, two players stand out to McMahon.

Keith Earls for the speed at which he could read play, as well as his running lines and more, and fullback Felix Jones, who was still playing in McMahon’s first year there – “I remember him being the most vocal guy ever on the pitch.”

Around this time last year, academy manager Malone let McMahon know Munster would be letting him go, something that came as a shock.

“In short, I was told ‘You’re not a bad player but we don’t have a progression for you to the senior team. We’re well stacked in the back three and there are younger guys coming through the academy and sub-academy behind you that we want to focus on more.’”

McMahon moved quickly to find a new club. Among many others, he contacted former Munster sub-academy lock Frank Bradshaw Ryan – whose father is a cousin of McMahon’s mother – who has been playing in the Pro D2 since last season and is now with Nevers.

That led to an introduction to French agent Gaëtan Mermoz, ex-France centre Maxime’s brother, and several clubs in France showed interest.

Limits on non-French players complicated the process in some cases, but McMahon got in touch with Bernard Jackman through one of his uncles in Clontarf and the former Grenoble coach was happy to give him a reference, leading to an offer from Carcassonne.

McMahon’s excellent form means Carcassonne are likely to be keen to keep him at the club next season, but he has ambitions to move to a higher level of the game sooner rather than later, his target of returning to Munster always in mind.

“For myself, it’s going to be a long road if I do make it back there, but that’s the end goal for a few years down the line – push myself as hard as I can to get into contention to go back to Munster.

“That’s where I want to play to make Dungarvan proud, my family proud – that’s what I love about the game and that’s what spurs me on.”

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Murray Kinsella

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