ON Monday, Heather O‘Brien jetted off to the south of France, paving the way for Paul O‘Connell’s arrival after the World Cup.
Churchtown woman O‘Brien however will be based in Toulouse having penned the dotted line with the Top 8 club prior to her recent Interprovincial title win with Munster, while O‘Connell will be camped in Toulon.
But, although they’ll both be playing in their respective top leagues, O‘Connell will be paid, O‘Brien won’t.
PLAYING IN FRANCE
The 31-year-old business woman, who owns her own physio clinic in Mallow, will be given accommodation and a job with Toulouse, who were just promoted to the top flight this season, but will not receive a salary from the French club.
“We’re not professional so there’s no big formal contract, so it’s easier from that point of view. It will be unpaid but they’ll look after accommodation and there’ll be more time to train. It was just a case of filling in transfer forms and going from there.
Ireland’s Heather O’Brien at the 2014 World CUp in Paris.
“Irish player Gill Bourke had been playing as hooker for a club in Spain and she had told me they were looking for players in France, so at Easter I headed over and had a look, and I got a good vibe.
“I suppose the big thing for me is leaving my club, Highfield. I love home and I love the club, and I’m really going to miss the girls, but I just wanted to learn a different style of rugby and play a different style more than anything.
“It will be a challenge and it might be more challenging than I realise in a few weeks time, but I’m going to give it a try at least. I’d definitely regret it if I didn’t go and I think you just have to take the chance. It’s funny, saying it to people you’re leaving, but the majority of the reaction is to go for it because it’s a short part of my playing career on the grander scheme of things.”
Former Irish basketball star Dearbhla Breen, who plays her club basketball with Fr Mathew’s in Cork city, is one of a double team O‘Brien has employed to run her clinic while she’s in France for the Top 8 season, which runs from next Sunday until May.
PLAYING IN TOULOUSE
“It’s difficult running your own business so that was a huge part of making my decision, because I wouldn’t have gone if I didn’t get really good people in. It was bit of a debate and it was only in the summer when I came to the decision.
“I think I was nearly compartmentalising it in my head because it was all about focusing on the Interprovincials with Munster first and then when that finished a fortnight ago, it was only a two-week turnaround, so it’s come around fast.
“There’s seven or eight games before Christmas and then two games between January and March because they take a break for Six Nations, and then the season will finish around April/May when the Top Four playoffs take place,” said the Irish number eight, and Munster vice-captain.
Joining O‘Brien in the south of France is a second Irish player, Leinster’s Paula Fitzpatrick, who plays her club rugby with St Mary’s in Dublin.
“I think we’ll have access to the Stade Toulouse Academy facilities but we’ll still be under the watch of the IRFU and following their directive, and we’ll be back and forth for Irish training camps,” said O‘Brien.
“We’ve had more camps now than we ever did because we’d normally not see each other this time of year but we had a recent camp and there’ll be another now in October.
“The Irish women’s head coach Tom Tierney has been very good about it because we cleared it with him and the IRFU first and they were really accommodating. Tom played abroad during his career and said it was great from an experience point of view so he was very supportive during the whole process.”
In facing the reigning champions Montpellier on Sunday, it will be a baptism of fire for the Irish contingent, but it’s a challenge both are ready to rise to.
Leinster’s Paul Fitzpatrick.
“The English Women’s Premiership would generally be thought to be way ahead of Irish league rugby and French Top 8 would be ahead as well, but some of the Irish games are of a very good standard, and some would be poor. We were hearing that the English league is best, but you don’t know until you’re in it, but we’ll find out now with the first game against Montpellier.
“Stade Toulouse are new to the Top 8 this year so, from what I gather, some women’s teams are combining with the men’s teams such as Stade Toulouse and Montpellier, and in some of them like in Perpignan, the women’s team can use their emblem but they’re not part of the club, so there’s different arrangements in different clubs.
“Castres are trying to do something as well so it’s changing quite quickly in France, and it’ll be an interesting place to be to see where the women’s game goes over the next few years.”
As to the challenge of the language barrier and work, that’s another element O‘Brien is willing to tackle head-on.
“Ideally I’d like to get a job as a physio assistant just to work on my French. I can speak some French but I reckon there’ll be a lot of charades at the start!” she laughs.