“It means so much to the players and coaches here to win at home” – The Irish Times

Life as a Top 14 rugby coach in France is rarely easy. Former Ireland and Lions manager Jeremy Davidson is about to enter his fifth season as Brive manager and is multitasking as usual. He switches effortlessly from English to French, dealing with agents, coaches and players from his office. The day is never quite over. When he returns from a long day of meetings and practices at the club headquarters, his personal computer awaits analysis late at night.

In a league filled with financial muscle that powers famous names in Toulon, Toulouse and Racing 92, Davidson must take an innovative approach to find an edge in an unforgiving environment. It invests in facilities to unearth young local talent to join the first team. Brive is a city of 45,000 inhabitants which regularly fills its 14,000-seat stadium. The club coffers are shallow, but the passion for the game is endless. Last year Brive narrowly escaped relegation and Davidson understands that the city expects better from him and the team.

“The last year has been really tough, it’s been a really tough season. There was a lot of pressure on the team. France can be such a volatile place, day to day in terms of rugby. If you win two games in a row you’ll see around town everyone is waving everywhere you go and people will stop you to chat about the team and then the minute you lose a game at home, honestly, you don’t want to leave the house.People will turn their shoulder and ignore you.

Davidson maintained the size and strength of the second-row international strikers who excelled on the Lions’ 1997 tour of South Africa. Residents of Brive have grown accustomed to seeing a hulking Irishman on a road bike pedaling furiously through the town’s quaint streets. The bike provided a stress reliever from last year’s daily routine. Davidson talks about the importance of winning at home in France. Whatever the opposition, fans expect victory on their home turf.

“It means so much to the players and the coaches here to win at home. I’m not saying it doesn’t mean anything to win, but it’s different. At home, you can literally see a small outside back grow and grow stronger with the crowd behind them. The biggest criterion in France is to win at home. It goes back to the old days of French rugby where it was dog-eat-dog and you were constantly fighting for your survival. The ref just hoped to get home alive, and that 12,000 angry fans weren’t going to lynch him. Thank goodness it’s gone from that brutality, but the pressure is still there.

In French rugby, players and supporters often talk about the importance of defending the territory, or land. In Brive, there is a particularly strong siege mentality. It’s a small city that competes weekly with physical and financial giants. Local cafes and bars have pictures of Brive’s solitary European Cup victory in 1997, and everyone wants to talk about rugby. Children grow up in the neighborhood dreaming of donning the club jersey. Davidson is trying to use the city’s passion and heritage to drive his rugby club to new levels.

“At Brive, we make sure as a club that we all eat together, the admin, the technical staff and the players, everyone. It’s about building that identity into what this club means and respecting our history and where we come from. We have iconic players on display so everyone can see where we come from and what it means. There has been a huge investment in young kids and the academy. We want them to be the heart and soul of the club for many years to come.”

Davidson arrived in France as a player with Castres in 1998, becoming the club’s first foreign captain. He understands the cultural hurdles new foreign players often have to jump through in French rugby and invests a lot of time and energy to ensure there is no division in his team. In his current roster there are Georgians, Fijians, Irish, Algerians and even a Colombian second line.

“I have always tried to be grateful for every player I have here. With our Pacific Island players, we have a duty to provide them with the best possible pastoral care. These are occasions when players arrive from Fiji to France and they are placed in a house with no internet or furniture and left there for months. They are left on their own without any help. We make sure they have everything they need to perform. We have people from all over the world here and we want them to be happy and welcome. We don’t want too much of one culture or nationality. We try to involve the leaders of every type of group. Our code of conduct is a code everyone buys in. No one is treated differently.

Last year, Davidson’s former international teammate Ronan O’Gara won the Heineken Champions Cup with La Rochelle. O’Gara and the team returned to the city’s port greeted by thousands of fans waving yellow club flags. Brive’s European glory days seem unlikely given the financial realities of gambling in France today. Has Davidson ever felt envy when turning to opposition coaches in the league who can play a fantasy rugby element every year on their budgets?

“I would like to have a little more money, but I am where I am. You must work with the hand dealt to you. I am very lucky to be here, many coaches from all over the world would like this job in Brive. We have a long way to go and there are things we want to achieve. In terms of the envy of other coaches, no; I am determined to succeed with what I have. I am a regular at the club, I played at Castres, then I trained them. I went to Aurillac to train and stayed there for six years. There are not many coaches who survive in France for six years and then in the Top 14 for five years. I am very proud of this record.

Two months ago, Davidson traveled to Stratford-upon-Avon to reunite with his 1997 British and Irish Lions teammates. Davidson understands the power of legacy to drive Brive to new levels in the future. His own player history continues to give him meaning. He met his former sparring partner Doddie Weir, the great Scottish second line, struggling with motor neurone disease. Weir’s lust for life stayed with Davidson.

“It was a low key reunion in England organized by the lads themselves which made it special. Doddie was at the reunion and it shocks you to see what happened to him. I tell you if he had been in form, there’s no way I would have played in the tests. He was an incredible athlete and a wonderful personality to be around.

“Doddie was in a wheelchair but he was still drinking Guinness through a straw, which is just typical of this guy. He had brought some whiskey for us all to share with him and he was still life and love. soul of the party. He was as jovial as ever. Seeing him now is hard to swallow. It could be any of us and it makes you realize how fragile this life is.

Davidson won’t close the door on a possible return to Ireland, either with a club or in a national coaching role, but today his life is in Brive. The streets of the city and the market are filled with expectation and dreams of a new season. Davidson is grounded in the reality of upsetting the odds in France again.

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