'He's one of the great players in the history of the club... the definition of a warrior'

Trevor Brennan made a massive success of his move to Toulouse and remains part of the club’s fabric.

trevor brennan (3)

BEFORE TOULOUSE CAME calling, Trevor Brennan had been thinking about getting out of rugby altogether.

He was playing with Leinster but found himself frustrated at being left out of the team at times. While he had earned 13 Ireland caps, it didn’t look like his standing would improve at Test level either.

Indeed, Brennan had started learning his trade, kick-starting what might have become a new career as a tiler.

But instead of fading out of top-level rugby, the ‘Barnhall Bruiser’ ended up becoming a king of Europe with a Toulouse side that was one of the most thrilling ever. Brennan was central to the French club’s Heineken Cup titles in 2003 and 2005, also playing in the final defeat to Wasps in between.

A hard man from Leixlip and the aristocrats of French rugby might not have seemed like a match made in heaven, but Brennan was a resounding success and lives in the village of Castèlginèst, just outside Toulouse, to this day.

“So many of those Toulouse players from those teams are legends and Trevor is one of them,” says Yannick Nyanga, who played with Brennan for the final two years of the Irishman’s career.

“He’s the definition of a warrior for me. He’s one of the great, great players in the history of the club.”

When Brennan first arrived in Toulouse, the locals weren’t quite sure what to make of him.

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“He was a curiosity because there weren’t many foreign players in Toulouse before him,” says Wilfried Templier, a journalist with RMC Sport who covers the club and also lives in Castèlginèst. “Toulouse was all about homegrown players coming through the club.”

Naturally enough, it wasn’t all smooth sailing for Brennan during his first pre-season with the club but as soon as his wife, Paula, and two youngs sons followed him out to France, it started to roll.

“One of the big wins for him was that he had kids and that’s really important to understand,” says Aidan McCullen, another former Leinster man who joined Brennan in Toulouse for the 2005/06 season. 

“When you have a child, that plugs you into the system with school and so on, and that helps you adapt better.”

trevor-brennan-with-sons-daniel-and-joshua Daniel, Trevor, and Joshua Brennan after the 2003 Heineken Cup final. Source: INPHO

The Brennans quickly became part of the fabric in Toulouse as Trevor’s impact on the pitch grew. 

The Top 14 club knew what they were doing by signing Brennan – who had to get out of an agreement with English club Orrell to move to Toulouse – even if it took most people in Ireland and France by surprise. Toulouse are rigorous with their scouting, tracking players for several seasons to be sure of their qualities and traits. Guy Novès felt Brennan’s edge was a key ingredient the club was missing.

Stars like Émile Ntamack, Frédéric Michalak, Yannick Jauzion and Clément Poitrenaud could tear teams apart in the backline, but Novès wanted more grit up front alongside captain Fabien Pelous and hooker Williams Servat. Brennan fitted the bill.

“Toulouse were famous for the talent of the players, the fact we were able to pass and offload and it was really beautiful to see,” says Nyanga.

“But this game wouldn’t have been possible without players like Trevor. He wasn’t the one touching the ball most often on the field but players like Trevor made the Toulouse way possible because they were sacrificing themselves for the team.”

McCullen explains that many newcomers, himself included, attempt to adapt to the Toulouse way, looking to throw offloads and make breaks where it’s not really instinctual to them. 

Brennan’s strengths were smashing people in tackles, hammering rucks, being nailed-on with his set-piece work, and generally making everyone else look better.

“They wanted Trevor to come over and be himself, they didn’t want him to adapt his play,” says McCullen, who recalls Brennan sitting at the back of the team bus on the way to games with a notepad and pen, jotting down thoughts for what would become his book, Heart and Soul.

“I remember him asking me, ‘What would you say I do for Toulouse?’ I told him he destroyed things. He started laughing, then paused and said, ‘Is that an insult?’ but I told him it was a compliment. The French like that kind of player.”

While moving to Toulouse meant the end of his Ireland career, Brennan won a Heineken Cup medal in his first season in France, starting in the number seven shirt in the 2003 final win over Perpignan.

The fans loved him. Every Stade Toulousain player is a star in the rugby-mad city, but not every Stade Toulousain star is accessible.

trevor-brennan-with-the-cup Brennan won two Heineken Cups with Toulouse. Source: INPHO

“Trevor is like the fans, he’s the same as them,” says Templier. “He’s a natural guy, likeable. He always has a big smile on his face, he’s very funny, always taking the mickey out of people. 

“He’s a star but a normal person and people here love that.”

In 2004, the Brennans bought a bar in Toulouse, turning it into De Danú, which became the first and only port of call for visiting rugby supporters and locals alike. 

Nyanga, who spent a decade playing for Toulouse, says that the public in the city gave back to Brennan what he gave to the club out on the pitch. 

“He would have fit in anywhere, whether it was Paris or wherever, because he has this intelligence to say the right words to people,” says Nyanga, who is now part of the backroom staff at Racing 92 in the capital city.

Poitrenaud’s error at Twickenham allowed Wasps to steal the 2004 Heineken Cup but Toulouse were back on top a year later, beating Stade Français after extra time in Edinburgh with Brennan at blindside flanker this time.

He played in the second row too and Novès cherished him, as McCullen came to appreciate when he joined in the summer of 2005. 

In October of that year, McCullen and Brennan were part of the Toulouse team that went to Paris to take on Stade Français in the Top 14 on an unforgettable occasion at the Stade de France.

The Parisian club’s extravagant owner, Max Guazzini, wanted it to be the ‘biggest club game in the world’ and organised extraordinary pre-match entertainment as a then-national record crowd of 79,502 packed in. 

Down in the changing room beforehand, a lad from Leixlip and a lad from Gormanston could scarcely believe where rugby had taken them.

“I remember turning to him and giving him a hug and saying it was just a great memory to share with him,” recalls McCullen, whose book ‘Undisruptable‘ is released next week.

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Of course, things ended in high-profile disastrous fashion for Brennan when he climbed into the crowd during Toulouse’s game against Ulster in January 2007 and punched one of the away fans, earning a lifetime ban that was reduced to five years on appeal.

trevor-brennan-932002 Brennan in Barnhall colours in 2002. Source: INPHO

No one could look back on something like that without major regret, but Toulouse stuck by Brennan throughout the bitter fallout from that incident.

“He’s not just that,” says Nyanga. “I don’t want to avoid it but I don’t want people to think he’s only that.”

Brennan announced his retirement that March, before his ban was dished out, and his playing days were over at the age of 33.

“His career was cut short and it’s sad because he had more to give Toulouse,” says Templier. “But that’s the way it was.”

Brennan turned away from form the glare of professional rugby for a few years afterward but the rise of his sons in the game kept him involved, while the people of Toulouse continued to flock to his bar.

The Brennan boys are a chip off the old block. 22-year-old tighthead Daniel is now with Brive after a spell at Montpellier, having come through the Toulouse ranks to play for France at underage levels. 

19-year-old second row Joshua is 6ft 6ins and has followed in Dan’s footsteps with Toulouse, where he is considered a big prospect, and with France’s underage teams. The youngest brother, 14-year-old Bobby, also plays for Toulouse.

Their parents now run Brennan’s bar and restaurant in Castèlginèst, where they have rented out one of their properties to Springbok World Cup winner Cheslin Kolbe, a current Toulouse star.

“Trevor extended his life and relationship with Toulouse, the town and club, with his business and also his sons… his French sons, non?” says Templier.

“It’s very interesting because they’re an Irish family but they’re half-French now. It’s beautiful.”

Given how strong their roots are in France, McCullen says the Brennans would have been mad to ever consider shifting their lives back to Ireland.

“It has been an amazing success,” says McCullen reflecting on Brennan moving over in 2002.

“We’re all talking about diversity in organisations at the moment, think about where Trevor came from… he didn’t have a pedigree in rugby, he didn’t always have people in his corner – politics were big in rugby back then – his starting point wasn’t equal with many of his peers.

“He had to break a paradigm, break a mental block of how people saw him.

“Look what he achieved given that starting point.”

For more great storytelling and analysis from our award-winning journalists, join the club at The42 Membership today. Click here to find out more >

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Murray Kinsella

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